Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was born into a prominent aristocratic family whose surname was de Gas, which Degas found too pretentious to adopt; nor did he often use his full first name, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar.

He abandoned his pursuit of law at 18 years of age, and in 1855, entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts to study with Lamothe, a former pupil of Jean-August-Dominque Ingres (1780-1867).  His influences came from famous painters including Raphael (1483-1520), Titian (c. 1490-1576), Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), and above all, by Ingres, whose belief in the primacy of drawing as the foundation of all art left a lifelong impression on Degas.

Degas is most immediately associated with artwork featuring ballet – over half of his prolific output, including both paintings and sculptures, focuses on this subject – and with impressionist painters.  Yet that is too narrow an understanding of a man who bridged the divide between the Renaissance traditions of painting and the movement among modern artists who wished to break with them.  Degas worked in a variety of media – sculpture, pastel, printmaking, drawing, and photography, in addition to painting – and with each, investigated space, light, and controlled, elegant movement.

Here are four Degas paintings that give an overview of one of the most famous painters of the 19th century.

The Bellelli Family, 1858-60.  Oil on canvas, 6'7" by 8'5 1/2".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

The Bellelli Family, 1858-60.  Oil on canvas, 6’7″ by 8’5 1/2″.  Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

The Bellelli Family

Edgar Degas toured Italy in the late 1850s to study and copy works from old master and Renaissance painters.  While he was in Florence, he stayed with Gennaro and Laure Bellelli, his paternal aunt.  The Bellelli Family, a life-sized family portrait, is fraught with domestic tension and sorrow.  

On the back wall is a Degas drawing of Laure’s late father, Rene Hilaire, a prominent banker who solidified the family’s financial well-being.  Laure, dressed in mourning, shows the only physical contact in the portrait, her limp hand draped on the shoulder of her daughter, Giovanna.  Laure averts her gaze both from the viewer and Gennaro, who is symbolically barricaded from his family by the vertical edges of the mirror and fireplace, and the desk behind
Giulia, the daughter on the right.  His back is toward the viewer and his face is in the shadows to further emphasize his detachment.

Note the headless dog in the lower right corner, a nod to Degas’ interest in the photographic practice of capturing partial images.

The Dance Class

Edgar Degas was far more interested in ballet rehearsals and training than in polished performances.

Here, a class of ballerinas relaxes after finishing a class, with some girls fidgeting, stretching, and gossiping in the back of the room.

The Dance Class, a. 1873-75.  Oil on canvas, 33 1 /2" by 29 1/2".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

The Dance Class, a. 1873-75.  Oil on canvas, 33 1 /2″ by 29 1/2″.  Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

The dancers are there with women who appear to be their mothers, which opens up a mystery: when The Dance Class was created in the 1870s, ballet was considered a disreputable activity because many dancers subsequently became prostitutes.

Are the mothers there to protect their daughters from this fate… or to attain the most lucrative offers?

This strongly diagonal composition places the renowned ballet dancer, Jules Perrot, in its center; the empty swath of floor behind him intensifies his commanding presence.  Although we feel that we are viewing this classroom from the left hand corner, the closest ballerinas have their backs toward us and none makes eye contact, generating a quality of being simulatenously present and invisible.

Although many consider him one of the foremost Impressionist painters, Degas shunned plein air painting and only worked in his studio.  X-ray examination of The Dance Class reveals frequent alterations, including two dancers who were initially in the foreground facing the viewer.  It is not surprising, then, that he once claimed,

No art is as unspontaneous as mine.  What I do is the result of contemplation and the study of the old masters.

This Degas painting has a rich provenance: it was exhibited in the 1867 Salon and was merely titled, Family Portrait; it was subsequently sold at a 1889 Christie’s auction to Theo van Gogh, brother of Vincent van Gogh.

In a Cafe (The Absinthe Drinker)

In a Cafe (L'Absinthe), 1876.  Oil on canvas, 36 1/4" by 26 3/4".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris. 

In a Cafe (L’Absinthe), 1876.  Oil on canvas, 36 1/4″ by 26 3/4″.  Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

Like his peer and rival, Edouard Manet, Degas believed in incorporating modern subjects in his artwork.  In the late 19th century, this included the widespread trend of drinking absinthe, a highly alcoholic spirit popular among bohemian French artists and cafe goers.

Again, the idiosyncratic perspective provides the sense of immediacy that a photograph does, as if the viewer stumbled upon two red-eyed, despondent patrons who sit side-by-side but are absorbed in their individual thoughts.

Yet the entire scene was meticulously staged.  The man is the engraver, Marcellin Desboutin, and the woman is the acress Ellen Amedee; each were close friends of the artist.  Perhaps he was speaking of The Absinthe Drinker when he observed,

A painting requires as much fraudulence, trickery, and deception as the perpetration of a crime.

It is no wonder, then, that he didn’t consider himself one of the Impressionist painters, who painted outside with spontaneous brushstrokes to capture the immediacy of light. Degas was heavily involved, however, in organizing the first exhibition of Impressionist paintings in 1874; his Absinthe was shown in the third such show.

In the same year, his father died and the family learned that his bank was in significant debt.  Degas disposed of his personal art collection, his house, and his inheritance to avert financial ruin for his brothers, and then had to earn his living as a professional artist.

Blue Dancers (Danseuses bleues)

Dancers appeared in Degas paintings throughout his career, transitioning from figures who were graceful to symbolic of Parisian vices to gestural by the late 1880s.

Danseuses bleues (Blue Dancers), ca. 1893.  Oil on canvas, approximately 33 1/2" by 30".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Danseuses bleues (Blue Dancers), ca. 1893.  Oil on canvas, approximately 33 1/2″ by 30″.  Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

In his later career, his colors became more intense while his ballerinas became blurred and remarkably distant from the realism of his earlier works.

Edgar Degas had served in the artillery during the Siege of Paris in 1871, and suffered a significant eye injury that impaired his vision and likely contributed to the lack of fine detail in his work as he aged; he ultimately stopped painting completely in 1912.

For more Degas paintings and artwork, visit the Museum of Modern Art’s show, Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty.  Running until July 24, 2016, it explores the diversity of his work, and includes 120 monotypes along with 60 associated paintings, drawings, pastels, and prints. If you get to see it, send along your review, please!

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