The Dancers of Edgar Degas

Ballet Class (1873)
by Edgar Degas

On July 19, 1834, French artist Edgar Degas was born, famous for his paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings. He is especially identified with the subject of dance; more than half of his works depict dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, although he rejected the term, and preferred to be called a realist.

Edgar Degas graduated from school in 1853 and turned his room into an artist’s studio. Despite the fact, that he was expected to become a lawyer, Degas enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts and studied drawing there with Louis Lamothe. The young artist traveled to Italy in 1856, where he lived with his aunt’s family in Naples. In this period, Degas drew and painted numerous copies of works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and other Renaissance artists, but he usually selected from an altarpiece a detail that had caught his attention, a secondary figure, or a head which he treated as a portrait. After a three year stay in Italy, Degas moved into a Paris studio to begin painting “The Bellelli Family“, one of his early masterpieces. However, the painting remained unfinished until 1867. The artist created several history paintings, like Young Spartans around 1860 or Scene of War in the Middle Ages, but unfortunately, they received only little attention.

After the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Degas stayed in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he created A Cotton Office, the only painting that was purchased by a museum in his lifetime. Beginning from 1874, the artist depended for the first time in his life on sales of his artwork for income and in this period, he produced probably his greatest work. He joined the group that soon became known as the Impressionists. Together, they mounted eight art shows. However, Degas did not feel that he had much in common with the artists, painting landscapes outdoors such as Monet. Also he disliked being called an impressionist.

Degas started painting women at work including milliners and laundresses in the late 1860s, shifting from his initial forays into history painting to an original observation of contemporary life. Mlle. Fiocre in the Ballet La Source, exhibited in the Salon of 1868, was his first major work to introduce a subject with which he would become especially identified, dancers. In many subsequent paintings, dancers were shown backstage or in rehearsal, emphasizing their status as professionals doing a job. His interest in portraiture led him to study carefully the ways in which a person’s social stature or form of employment may be revealed by their physiognomy, posture, dress, and other attributes. In his paintings of dancers and laundresses, he reveals their occupations not only by their dress and activities but also by their body type. His ballerinas exhibit an athletic physicality, while his laundresses are heavy and solid.

In his later years, the artist also developed a high interest for photography. He often took pictures of friends, mostly indoors, and other images depicted dancers and nudes. As the years passed however, Degas became more and more isolated. The Dreyfus Affair controversy brought his antisemitic leanings to the fore and he broke with all his Jewish friends. In later life, Degas regretted the loss of those friends. It is assumed that he ceased working in 1912. Edgar Degas passed away on September 27, 1917.

At yovisto, you can learn more about Edgar Degas’ art in the short lecture on the Milliners.

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