Of all the French Impressionists, Edgar Degas (1834–1917) was the odd one out. Not only did he consider himself a Realist rather than Impressionist, but he spent much of his career avoiding painting landscapes at all. Yet he was one of the main organisers of the First Impressionist Exhibition, and invited many of those who showed their work there.
Edgar Degas was born in Paris in 1834, into an affluent family. His father was a banker from Naples, Italy, and his mother’s family were merchants in New Orleans. His father had hoped that Edgar would study law with the intention of working in the family business, but within days of passing out of school, he 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. 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, while attending 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. The following summer he travelled on to family in Florence, where he remained copying the masters. He finally returned to Paris in the Spring of 1859, where he found himself a studio, and worked on his portrait of the Bellelli family, and a short series of history paintings intended to launch his career.
The best-known of those history paintings is his Young Spartans Exercising (c 1860), with an original theme probably based on the writings of Plutarch. Four Spartan girls, on the left, are taunting five Spartan boys, on the right, who appear to pose but not yet to respond to those taunts. 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.
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 the Spring of 1867, Degas 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, involving him 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.
At about the same time, Degas started to paint a series of works showing laundresses. Woman Ironing (c 1869) shows one of the army of women engaged or enslaved in this occupation in Paris at the time. The woman is young, yet stands like an automaton, staring emotionlessly at the viewer. Her right hand moves an iron (not one of today’s convenient electrically-heated models) over an expanse of white linen in front of her. Her left arm hangs limply at her side, and her eyes are puffy from lack of sleep. She is surrounded by pieces of her work, which hang around her.
Degas travelled 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 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 vague forms.
Degas touched on the subject of ballet when painting a friend of his, Désiré Dihau, who played the bassoon in The Orchestra at the Opera. This may have been painted as early as 1868, or around 1870, and was one of a series of views of the fourteen-strong orchestra as if seen from the audience. Each shows a tantalisingly highlighted stage with dancers, a lead which Degas followed.
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 (as above), but around 1870 he became 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.
Horses in a Meadow (1871) is particularly interesting because it includes industrial elements, in the form of smoking chimneys and the steam vessels in the river behind. These are often cited as being characteristic of impressionist paintings, but are equally typical of Degas’ pursuit of images showing ‘modern life’.
In the 1870s, Degas changed the course of his work, from history painting to the depiction of ‘modern life’, a part of the Impressionist agenda. 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).
An overtly genre work, it features several family portraits, and has a narrative background, showing a cotton buyer visiting the Musson cotton merchants. Degas is believed to have hoped to sell this work to the Cottrills, a family of British cotton manufacturers, and it was exhibited at the Second Impressionist Exhibition in 1876.
The elderly gentleman wearing a top hat, in the foreground, is Michel Musson, Degas’ uncle, and a partner in the business. Edgar Degas’ brothers Achille and René are slightly further back on the left (leaning idly against the open window), and sat reading a newspaper, respectively. Standing at the desk on the right is John Lavaudais, the cashier.
The figures echo and repeat one another across and into the depths of the room, in dress, posture, and appearance.
While almost everyone else in the painting is lounging around, business is being transacted between the buyer and broker on either side of the table covered with the cotton, the broker being at the centre of the canvas. This small pool of commerce within an image dominated by idleness and dolce far niente reflects the situation of Degas and his family at that time.
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. His works shown at that exhibition were among the few singled out for praise by critics, and are listed in the catalogue as:
- Dance Exam at the Theatre
- Dance Class (above)
- Intérieur de Coulisse
- Start of the Race (sketch, drawing)
- False Start (drawing ‘à l’essence’)
- Ballet Rehearsal on Stage (drawing)
- A Laundress (pastel)
- After the Bath (study, drawing)
- At the Races in the Provinces.
Degas never really embraced landscape painting, nor what we would consider mainstream Impressionism, although he was a key influence within the movement. Among other achievements, it was he who mentored Mary Cassatt as she developed her printmaking skills. Late in life he became embittered, lost most of his friends, and died in Paris in 1917.
On this blog
Edgar Degas: an appreciation
A life in twelve paintings
Narrative paintings to 1865
Narrative paintings from 1866
Dancers 1, Form and movement
Dancers 2, Lessons and rehearsal
Portraits of the Modern Woman
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.