Taking It Beyond Ballerinas and Corny Jokes
For many art lovers, the 19th-century French artist Edgar Degas’ legacy begins and ends with ballerinas. But the reality is there is more to know about this sculptor, painter, printer and draftsman besides pastel tutus and the corny “the gas makes the van go” joke.
That’s why we delve a little deeper into his life and times to truly discover what he was all about including the interesting, the good and, sadly, the not so good about this famed artist.
#1 — Just How Many Ballerinas
It is tough getting past the dancers. Why? Because they matter. Though Degas, himself, was dismissive of his focus on ballet dancers, describing it as merely an interest in “rendering movement and painting pretty clothes,” his dancers were actually about a whole lot more.
Without these artworks, dance would have no place in the hallowed halls of art museums and art history books. Degas claimed the subject matter for art and legitimized it. He created an entire art genre that revolved around Paris’ poor, young and female — for many of the dancers he depicted from the grand Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opéra and Ballet — were just that.
New Subjects and Ways of Working
He also invented new techniques for drawing and painting because of the “petit rats,” as the young dancers were called. No one had ever attempted to visually capture such bodily movements and bodies in motion before. Degas also revived pastel as an art material, which had been set aside for decades as out of fashion.
Another why? Because Degas devoted more than half of his entire artistic output to this one subject — dancers and the act of dancing … and also dancers not dancing. Degas managed to elevate and provoke the art world with images of real people, in this case, dancers living their lives backstage, in practice and at the heights of their careers.
#2 Don’t Call Him an Impressionist
Though Degas is regarded as one of the cornerstone founders of Impressionism, he quite disliked the name and many of the artists who made up the movement. He thought of himself as a realist first and foremost. But that did not stop him from leading the collective and co-organizing their groundbreaking exhibitions from 1874-86.
He showed his work in all but one of the eight shows the Impressionists put on. Meanwhile, he had consistent conflicts with others in the group because of his insistence in including non-Impressionists in their shows.
He sneered at the idea of painting outdoors, further insulting Monet and the other landscape painters in the group as a result. He also disliked the scandal that came along with the Impressionists, who were breaking new ground and were looking for publicity and advertising opportunities. Degas was more reserved in reputation and disliked being swept up in the notoriety.
#3 Learned from Copying Masters
When he turned 18, Degas turned a room in his home into a studio and registered with the Louvre Museum as a copyist though his father pressed him into attending law skill.
His studies in school faltered, but Degas persevered until 1855, when he met one of his artistic idols, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Ingres told him: “Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist.”
Degas left law behind for good when he was accepted at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts soon after meeting with Ingres. In the next several years he would travel to Italy, continuing his artistic development through copying works of Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael. Unique to Degas was that he often chose secondary or background figures to depict, not those who were the main subjects of the works.
It is said that Degas’ career pivoted after meeting Edouard Manet when both were, legend has it, painting the same Velazquez portrait in the Louvre in 1864, ten years after Degas first signed on as a copyist at the museum.
#4 He Was French Times Two
You might have thought Degas’ Frenchiness stopped at, well, France. But no! His mother was French Creole, born in the New Orleans, and Degas’ brother and many family members lived in Louisiana as well.
Degas made extended visits to New Orleans starting in 1872. He painted a good deal during his time there, mostly depicting family members. His painting, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, made in 1873 won popularity across the pond in France and it became the artist’s only work that was acquired by a museum during his lifetime.
#5 Did His Greatest Work Under Pressure
Soon after returning to Paris from New Orleans, Degas’ father passed away in 1874 and the artist discovered that his brother had incurred massive amounts of debts that could sink the family name. Degas sold his house and art collection to balance the scales.
As a result, Degas began to depend on the sale of his work for the first time in his life. His greatest work would follow, as he joined with the Impressionists and made a name for himself.
#6 A Hard Man to Like
As an artist, there is much to love of Degas. As a man, he was difficult to like. He once said, “I want people to believe me wicked,” but he wasn’t misbehaving as much as misanthropic, misogynistic and argumentative. He had a harsh wit and didn’t hesitate to insult with it. Friends and models all felt its sting.
When the Dreyfus Affair occurred, his anti-Semitism came to the fore and he broke ties with all his Jewish friends. He also became more isolated over the years, partially due to his belief that an artist should live apart and as blindness set in (adding another layer of bitterness to his personality). He died alone, unmarried and childless.
According to Auguste-Pierre Renoir, a close friend: “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay [until] the end.”
#7 Edgar Degas Loved to Point and Shoot
We know of Degas as a painter and draftsman foremost, but he was also an incredibly committed photographer. He developed a passion for it in the late 1880s, shooting self-portraits and taking pictures of intimates by lamplight including a double portrait of Renoir and Stephane Mallarme. He also created photos of his models to use as visual references for his paintings and drawings.
We can also trace many of his painting techniques to photography — cropping his paintings like a photographer would and adopting unusual vantage points and playing with dramatic perspectives.
What’s In a Legacy
In terms of an artistic legacy, Degas left us one filled with exceptional paintings and drawings and a style that truly moves viewers. If you want to pursue your own artistic legacy of powerful and moving paintings, Create Perfect Paintings by Nancy Reyner is a good resource to start with because “perfect” is all about discovering what’s perfect, creatively, for you.