Later this month, we will be remembering the life and work of Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas, who died a century ago. Degas is not my favourite artist of the group known as the French Impressionists, but is one of the most fascinating painters, draughtsmen, and print-makers of the nineteenth century.
Over the next three weeks or so, I will look at different areas of and themes in his art; rather than attempt a full biography and chronological account of his paintings, this article gives a concise summary, written around twelve of his key works, as an introduction to more detailed articles later.
Edgar Degas was born in Paris on 19 July 1834, into an affluent family. His father was a banker from Naples, Italy, and his mother’s family were merchants in New Orleans. In the summers of his childhood, the family visited Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, on the northern coast of France. His mother died in 1847, and Edgar passed his baccalauréat in 1853.
Degas’ father had hoped that his oldest son would study law with the intention of working in the family business, but within days of passing out of school, Edgar Degas registered as a copyist at the Louvre and the prints collection of the French National Library, intent on pursuing a training in art. By 1855, he had secured himself a place at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and shortly before starting there met JAD Ingres.
He trained under Louis Lamothe, who had in turn trained under Ingres, and copied avidly in the Louvre and elsewhere. In the summer of 1856, Degas travelled to Naples in Italy, moving on from there to Rome, where he remained until the summer of 1857, where he attended the French Academy. He continued to copy, and to paint modest landscapes and street scenes.
After a period with family in Naples, he spent the winter of 1857-8 in Rome, where he met Gustave Moreau at the French Academy. The following summer he travelled on to family in Florence, where he remained copying the masters. He visited Siena, Livorno, and Pisa, finally returning to Paris in the Spring of 1859. During this latter time in Italy, he started work on his portrait of his relatives the Bellelli family.
When back in Paris, Degas found himself a studio, and worked on his portrait of the Bellellis, and a short series of history paintings which he intended to use to launch his career as an artist.
The best-known of those history paintings is his Young Spartans Exercising (c 1860), which is an original theme probably based on the writings of Plutarch.
Four Spartan girls, on the left, are seen taunting five Spartan boys, on the right, who appear to pose but not yet to respond to the taunts of the girls. Behind, in the centre of the painting, a group of Spartan mothers are in discussion with Lycurgus, who laid down the laws and processes for Sparta, and wears a white robe with his back to the viewer. In the left distance is Mount Taygetus, where unfit Spartan babies were abandoned to see if they survived and merited life.
As with many of his works, Degas continued to work sporadically on this painting, leaving it unfinished when he died. The artist never explained his intention, nor did he provide any clues as to how this painting should be read. Modern readings often focus on gender contrasts and conflict, but all too often ignore its background, both visually and in history.
In 1861, Degas started visiting a former school friend on his country estate, and became interested in horse racing. This inspired several paintings, including his Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey which he first completed and exhibited at the Salon in 1866, then reworked in 1880-81 and around 1897.
This shows a close-cropped view of a steeplechase, in which the horses jump fences around the course. Two of the horses shown side-by-side have lost their riders, and a jockey in his racing silks is shown under them, lying on his back apparently unconscious.
In this painting, Degas declares his interest in form, and in depicting the form of people and horses when in motion. This anticipated and later benefitted from the pioneering photographic studies of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey during the 1870s. Although in some of his paintings of horse racing, Degas concentrated on the horses, carts, and the whole ambience of racing, in this his concern is with the injured jockey.
In 1867, Degas completed his paintings of the Bellelli family and exhibited them at the Salon. The following Spring, he started attending gatherings of Édouard Manet (whom he had first met when copying in the Louvre in 1862 or 1864) and his circle at the Café Guerbois. This led to his involvement in the inception of the Impressionist movement.
It was about this time that Degas painted one of his most enigmatic works: Interior (1868-9), which has become popularly known as ‘The Rape’, but has defied all attempts to produce a sustainable reading.
A man and a woman are in a bedroom together. The woman is at the left, partly kneeling down, and facing to the left. Her hair is cropped short, she wears a white shift which has dropped off her left shoulder, and her face is obscured in the dark. Her left forearm rests on a small stool or chair, over which is draped a dark brown cloak or coat. Her right hand rests on a wooden cabinet which is in front of her. She appears to be staring down towards the floor, off the left of the canvas.
The man stands at the far right, leaning on the inside of the bedroom door, and staring at the woman. He is quite well-dressed, with a black jacket, black waistcoat and mid-brown trousers. Both his hands are thrust into his trouser pockets, and his feet are apart. His top hat rests, upside down, on top of the cabinet in front of the woman.
Between them, just behind the woman, is a small occasional table, on which there is a table-lamp and a small open suitcase. Some of the contents of the suitcase rest over its edge. In front of it, on the table top, is a small pair of scissors and other items which appear to be from a small clothes repair kit (‘housewife’).
The single bed is made up, and its cover is not ruffled, but it may possibly bear a bloodstain at the foot. At the foot of the bed, on its large arched frame, another item apparently of the woman’s clothing (perhaps a coat) is loosely hung. On that end of the bed is a woman’s dark hat with ribbons, and her corset has been dropped on the floor by the foot of the bed.
It may be that Interior is a problem picture, intended to stimulate speculation as to its narrative, but not to resolve it.
Degas travelled quite a bit in 1869, first to Brussels where he sold some of his paintings, then in the summer to the north coast of France, where he visited Manet and painted some landscapes in pastels, on the Normandy coast. Among those is Beach at Low Tide (c 1869-70), which emphasises the flatness and emptiness. These are a stark contrast to all his previous work, with their very vague forms – hardly work for such a keen draughtsman.
The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870 spurred Degas to volunteer for the National Guard in Paris. His first service was in an artillery unit commanded by Henri Rouart, who became a lifelong friend. In the summer of the following year, Degas started to become worried about his eyesight, in particular his developing photophobia. Nevertheless, with life in Paris slowly returning to normal after the Commune, Degas visited James Tissot in London, and probably first came into contact with the dealer Durand-Ruel, who bought three works from Degas in early 1872.
Degas first seems to have become enthusiastic about ballet when he saw the Paris Opera production of La Source in 1866. Initial paintings of ballet concentrated on static scenes and the orchestra, but around 1870 he started to become more involved in the ballet at the Paris Opera, and to paint it almost obsessively.
The Dance Class (c 1873) is an early and elaborately-composed example of the works which were to make up half his total output. It shows well his meticulous draughtsmanship, and the strange effect of ballet dress in apparently dismembering the dancers, who become head, arms and legs with the white blur of chiffon between. This is most intense in the tangle of legs making their way down the spiral staircase at the upper left, and in the group of dancers just to the right of those stairs.
In the 1870s, Degas changed the course of his work, from history painting to the depicting of ‘modern life’, which was a part of the agenda of the developing Impressionist movement. He spent the winter of 1872-73 visiting his mother’s family in New Orleans, in the USA, where he painted A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873). Following his return to Paris, he, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, and Cézanne formed the group which was to mount the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, shortly after the death of his father.
Degas’ works shown at the First Impressionist Exhibition were among the few singled out for praise by the critics.
Among the motifs which Degas identified as being part of ‘modern life’ was the work of the army of laundresses who kept Parisians looking smart. Woman Ironing (c 1876-87) is one of a series of works which he made showing these women at work, as they did from early in the morning until very late each night. This painting was started in about 1876, and Degas continued to develop and rework it for the next decade.
In late 1876, as his father’s estate was being settled, it became clear that Degas was in dire financial straits and close to bankruptcy.
His ballet paintings progressed to smaller groups, focussing more on their form and movement, as in Danseuse basculant (Danseuse verte) (Swaying Dancer, Dancer in Green) (1877-79). This is painted not in oils, but the combination of pastel and gouache. Degas had experimented technically in three main areas: the use of peinture à l’essence, oil paint with the oil largely removed, a rich variety of wet and dry techniques in pastels, and print-making, in particular the re-introduction of the monotype.
In 1878, A Cotton Office in New Orleans became his first work to enter a public collection, when it was purchased by the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Pau for 2000 francs. Degas also exhibited work in the USA for the first time.
Degas continued to pursue his interest in form and movement, when in early 1879 he made studies for what was to become Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (1879) – another theme in his ‘modern life’ portfolio. This entertainer impressed large audiences with her ability to support herself by her teeth.
Another aspect of ‘modern life’ which inspired a series of paintings was the flourishing craft of women’s hat-making, shown in The Millinery Shop, a work which he first completed in 1879 and then reworked until 1886.
In 1879, following further praise of his work shown at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition, Degas proposed making an edition of prints, including work by Mary Cassatt, Pissarro, and himself, in a journal named Le Jour et la Nuit, but upset his collaborators when he changed his mind and dropped the idea.
The 1880s was a period of increasing success for Degas, as Durand-Ruel and other dealers showed and sold more of his work, eventually easing his financial situation. Degas’ paintings of the ballet remained in strong demand, and most continued his themes of form and movement.
However, Waiting, a pastel painting from about 1882, leaves the viewer speculating as to its narrative – why the dancer is clutching her ankle, what they are waiting for, and whether there is any relationship between the two women. As ever, Degas provided no assistance beyond this image.
This later period of his work also brought an increasing number of paintings of women bathing and dressing, culminating in pastel paintings formed from vigorous vertical or diagonal strokes, such as Woman Sponging Her Back (c 1888-92). There is speculation as to linkage with a series of monotypes which he made of brothels, which were kept private and not exhibited during his lifetime, and a wealth of readings and interpretations of these extremely intimate images. However, seen in the context of his work as a whole, they pursue his enduring interest in form and movement.
The eighth and last Impressionist Exhibition was held in 1886, where some of these paintings resulted in uproar because of their perceived ugliness and squalor.
In 1888, Degas started ‘taking the waters’ for a ‘cure’ for his eye problems, at Cauterets to the north of the Pyrenees, which became an annual event. The following winter he wrote his first poetry, and started to withdraw from some activities, visiting the ballet less often, and declining invitations to exhibit. He still maintained some of his friendships, though, and after his summer ‘cure’ at Cauterets visited Spain with Giovanni Boldini.
In 1890, apparently out of the blue, Degas started to make landscape images again. Some of these were monotypes, others painted in pastel, such as Steep Coast (c 1892). Some were clearly made from real landscapes which he saw during his travels at this time; others, like this one, are at least flights of fancy inspired by real views, and may be complete fantasy. They were brought together in his first solo exhibition in November 1892, at Durand-Ruel’s gallery.
The last twenty years of Degas’ life was marked by his increasing withdrawal, the loss of friends through their death or his anti-Semitic views on the Dreyfus Affair, and worsening eye problems. He did not stop painting until towards 1910, although his productivity declined well before then. He was undoubtedly a thorough curmudgeon in his last years, but also worked hard organising retrospectives for the likes of Berthe Morisot, and promoting the work and memory of other contemporaries.
By 1915, he was in a poor physical state, virtually blind, walking with great difficulty, and refusing visitors. Renoir and Mary Cassatt were among those who tried to bring comfort to him in his final years. On 27 September 1917, he died, and was buried the next day in the family vault in the Montmartre cemetery.
Carol Armstrong (1991, 2003) Odd Man Out, Readings on the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas, Getty. ISBN 978 0 8923 6728 3.
Ann Dumas, Richard Kendall, Flemming Friborg & Line Clausen Pedersen (2006) Edgar Degas, the Last Landscapes, Merrell. ISBN 978 1 8589 4343 5.
Richard Kendall & Jill DeVonyar (2011) Degas and the Ballet, Picturing Movement, Royal Academy of Arts. ISBN 978 1 9057 1169 7.
Christopher Lloyd (2014) Edgar Degas, Drawings and Pastels, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 5000 9381 8.