Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Research Paper on Edgar Degas

Research Paper on Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas was an inspiring Parisian painter who lived in the nineteenth century. He was one of the original artists defining Impressionists art. He painted everyday things. He painted ballerinas rubbing their ankles and rehearsals for a ballet performance. He would paint “women et toilette,” women combing their hair or drying off after a shower. He also did a few landscapes, however, the hallmark of Degas art was world of theatre, dance and music (www.Gardens of the Sunlight-Edgar Degas 1). It is hard to talk about his pieces chronologically because many overlap. Today, even though he is not around, he still may be one of the most inspiring artists in the world.

Edward Degas was born on July 9, 1834 in Paris. His father was a wealthy banker and his mother descended from French nobility. She was born in New Orleans. His mother died when he was thirteen. People speculated he never talked about his mother after her death because it hurt him too much.

When he was younger he spent many hours in museums, theatres, and concert halls. He received an education at Lycee Louis le Grand in Paris. He took an art class there where he received many honorable mentions. It was also at school where he formed a close relationship with Ludovic Halevy. Ludovic Halevy was also from upper middle class society and would become Degas’ influential life long friend. Despite Degas’ father’s love for the arts, especially Renaissance painting, Degas’ father did not want him to become a painter. In 1853 Degas’ father sent him to law school. Even there Degas would doodle instead of concentrating on his studies.

Degas would visit the studios of artists, many of which were his fathers friends and frequent the Louvre. At age eighteen and a half Degas received permission to copy famous artists paintings from the Louvre. In order to develop their own skills, nineteenth century artists copied paintings by the old masters, study their drawings and technique (www.metmuseum. org /explorer/Degas/Html/life. Html 1). It was when Degas was in these places that he met Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Ingres was a world-renowned painter.


After leaving law school Degas spent 1854 through 1859 in Italy studying art while staying with family. Degas was familiar with Italian art before his trip. In the nineteenth century there were no art schools and most painters went through apprenticeship with a master. Degas became apprentice to Lois Lamothe, who was one of Ingres’ more advanced students. As a result of his contacts with the Italian masters he produced paintings on historical subjects, “genre scenes” and began to focus more on color and movement. The most famous genre scene is The Bellelli Family, an oil work on canvas (c. 1858-1860). Pictured are his aunt, her daughters and her husband. In the painting it shows the unhappiness between the husband and wife. The wife in the picture is in mourning as her father recently passed away (Degas’ grandfather). It is speculated that the man in the framed drawing behind her is her deceased father. The work also shows Degas’ use of asymmetrical compositions, a style he learned from studying photos of Japanese art. Degas admired the asymmetrical compositions and the concentration of surface pattern of the Japanese art. His paintings reflect these influences. Degas often cut out parts of the images in his paintings. For example, in this painting the dog’s head was cut out of the picture and only the backside was showing.

While in Italy another important friendship Degas made was when he met Gustave Moreau. Moreau was a painter raised in the academic tradition who favoured large biblical or classical subjects, treated with great attention to detail (Copplestone 23). Moreau drew pastels with bright colors and Degas was inspired by this. Many of Degas’ finest works were pastels. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Degas was himself one of the finest of all pastellists (Copplestone 23).

In 1862 at his father’s insistence Degas went back to Paris. Here his circle of friends was a group of artists who called themselves the Impressionists. They included Claude Monet, and Edmond Duranty, both well renowned painters. They thought that any work should be more revealing to a person’s temperament, age, and as whether he was coming from work or a lovers rendezvous (Encyclopedia of art 1268). It is at this time that Degas starts to paint more real life scenes instead of the classics. In Paris in 1873 Degas had his first Impressionist exhibition with Monet and Renoir. The title of the show was called Exhibition of the Impressionists. An impressionist artist’s aim was to create an impression of a scene or subject like a photograph. The Impressionists wanted to make it a picture of real life with no frill. It is a style of painting originally developed in France in the 1870’s with Degas and his group of artist friends. At this showing Degas work received mixed reviews. Some critics detest them, while others write about him favorably and name him the leading figure among the new group of artists ( Chronology of the artists life 4).

Degas did not consider himself an Impressionist. He liked painting urban surroundings and the human body in motion while the other painters liked to paint nature. Many of the Impressionists thought that impressionist art required one to work outdoors, directly in view of nature in order to get truthful light and atmosphere. Degas actually mocked this idea that an impressionist artist had to work outside. Degas is reported to have said “Why would I painting is not a sport” (Coppelstone 12). But like the Impressionists he painted and drew the real world in a real, truthful light as if from a photograph.

Degas developed many interests that affected his work but one of the most significant was Horse racing. Horse racing started in France and the exclusive Jockey Club was founded in 1833. In France, horse racing had the stigma of being very snobby and being a social activity for the rich. Of the Impressionist artists only Manet and Degas painted horseracing. This is probably due to the fact that none of the other impressionist artists could aspire to the required social level of the Jockey Club. Degas went to horseraces a lot but his paintings of jockeys and the races were done in the studio or from photos when available. The birth of photography was an aid and inspiration for Degas giving him visual information he hadn’t had before. It captured the images for him so he could make compositions of them at a later date. Degas produced over 45 paintings, 20 pastels, 250 drawings, and 17 structures on horse racing. He painted At the Racecourse with Jockeys in Front of the Stands (C.1869-1872). Degas painted the practicing before the race so it would seem real. This painting is interesting because it shows Degas use of natural light by his painting of the silhouette of the horses and the riders.

In 1870 Degas work was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war where he volunteered to serve in the artillery. As a result Degas believed he got an eye disease. This eye disease slowly affected his work and eventually blinded him.

In the 1870’s Degas started to paint Ballerinas. He was attracted to ballet because of his passion for music and he was always at the opera and concerts. The opera house provided unusual viewpoints like light and dark artificial lighting. He liked juxtaposition of illusion and reality. Degas would paint the dancers rubbing their ankles or fixing their tutus. He would always paint something that let you know that it is just a performance without special effects and without magic. He would draw the orchestra or a man standing backstage waiting for his part stretching. Degas would let you know the real life story. Degas never had known relationships with women but some say he may have had relationships with ballerinas. One of his most famous paintings is The Dance Class (c.1873-1875). Here the dancers are supposedly watching the dance master while reading letters and scratching their backs. The water can under the piano gives the picture humor. The picture is interesting and it shows what a real dance class was like back in the late 1870’s. Degas used little color in this painting. The only color he used was the color of the sashes around the dancers waists. Another creation he made was the sculpture of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (c.1880-1881). When it was exhibited it received mixed reviews. Some people loved it while others thought it was a poorly dressed ratty-looking girl. This sculpture was made with real ribbon and tutu.

Degas had no financial necessity to sell his works but when he did he might ask for them back to make some changes and he would forget to return them. Some people think he would do that on purpose because he did not like to part with his work. Once in a letter to his friend Ludovic Halevy, Degas complains that he has to draw ballerinas over and over because of the demanding public. However, Degas never painted dogs or flowers because he had asthma.

In the 1870’s through 1880’s Degas was fascinated with people doing daily chores. Degas was not poor so he had no financial necessity to do chores. Everything was done for him. Although much of Degas art depicts the working classes, or at least working women, he had little sympathy for or understanding of any class other than his own. His interest in working class-women was the detached curiosity of an anthropologist studying the ways of a primitive tribe (Bade 8).

In the 1880s Degas also started to paint “women et toilettes.” He would paint women drying their hair or washing themselves. He painted things as if you were looking through a keyhole. He says “Hitherto the nude has always been represented in poses which presuppose an audience, but these woman of mine are honest, simple folk, and unconcerned by other interests than those involved in their physical condition” (Bade 30). In 1886, Degas created a painting called After the Bath, Woman Drying her Feet. The person viewing the picture is given the feeling that they are sneaking a glimpse of the person in the picture without their permission. This picture was shown in the Impressionist show of 1886.

Cafй concerts were amongst the most popular thing, of Parisian entertainments. Degas enjoyed going to them. At the Cafй concerts there were jugglers and magicians and prostitutes. He felt the concerts shared many visual features with the ballet paintings. There are the same striking divisions between the dark orchestra pit, audience and brightly lit stage; the same magical effect of gas footlights dissolving the solidity of forms on stage (Bade 26). One of the paintings Degas created is called Cafe-Concert, Les Ambassadeurs (c. 1876-77). This painting is a pastel over monotype. Monotype is using wet ink painted on a non-absorbent piece of material such as metal and then pressing it onto paper to make a print. It usually makes only one print. In this particular painting after Degas printed his monotype he colored over it with pastels. This picture shows a lively social life with singers and music. The picture suggests that people are having a good time.

In Degas later years he started to paint in a more cubist style and to paint and draw some landscapes. He became obsessed with photography as an aid to his art. He also had models come to his studio so he could copy them for his paintings and sculptures. One of the more cubist paintings he did was Landscape (c.1998). This picture gives you the feeling of monotone and heaviness since it is done in black and white oil. A painting such as Landscape, presents the structure of the buildings in a way that seems to anticipate the cubist vision, (drawing through the use of cubes) thus underlining the point that even toward the end of his career Degas’ approach to art was innovative (Sutton 301)

As Degas grew older and due to his failing eyesight, he started to sculpt and model with wax over metal armatures. These sculptures remained in his studio and it was not until after his death that they were they cast into bronze. He says to a friend” I’m always modeling with wax” (Encyclopedia of Art 1273). At this stage of his life he also favored pastels over paint.

Throughout his life, Degas was always admired by friends and family for his great wit and charm but he could sometimes insult you or make fun of you in his humor. In his old age, he became very antisocial and he hated mankind. He was always anti-Semitic but he never let his racial opinions color his art. In his later years he was always lonely and had broken ties with his lifelong friend Ludovic Halevy due to his anti-Semitic views. He sometimes wished he had a wife and children. Degas stated he never married because ”I would have been in mortal misery all my life of fear my wife would say, “that’s a pretty thing” after he’d finished a picture” (Bade 5).

On September 27, 1917 Degas died. He left his art to his friends and cousins. At one point in his life Degas had such a collection of artwork that he considered opening his own private museum. Much of his work was also auctioned successfully and purchased by museums. Degas hated conventional prettiness and there is great irony in the fact that dancers now adorn table mats, greeting cards, and jigsaw puzzles and have in fact become harmless and pretty (Bade5).

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