Edgar Degas

Born in Paris in 1834, Degas trained at the École des Beaux-Arts, and with Louis Lamothe, a pupil of Ingres. His first independent works were history paintings. For the remainder of his career, Degas was to devote himself to the problem of reconciling line with colour, traditionally regarded as opposites in academic theory. Degas painted many portraits and early in the 1860s he began also to paint genre scenes of modern life—initially of racecourses, and then, later in the decade, of theatre and ballet scenes. In many of these, he made a novel and ambitious combination of portraiture with genre painting, by showing recognisable figures in their habitual surroundings of work or leisure.

In the 1870s, he became increasingly preoccupied with ballet subjects. Normally the dancers are shown rehearsing or at rest; sometimes the dancers are under the instruction of a ballet master, but many pictures focus on the dancers alone. In his modern life subjects, Degas developed distinctive compositional techniques, viewing the scenes from unexpected angles and framing his compositions in unconventional ways.

Degas exhibited at the Paris Salon during the 1860s and later regularly exhibited in the Impressionist group exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. From around 1880 onwards, he came to focus more closely on the figures in his compositions, playing down the settings and environments in which they are placed; ballet dancers remained a central theme in his art, but he also produced a long sequence of images of the female nude.

Throughout his career, Degas experimented with a great variety of techniques, and, from around 1880 onwards, increasingly explored the possibilities of pastel, although he continued to work in oil until the end of his career. He also experimented with reproductive media, notably the monotype, and from the late 1870s onwards he made a sequence of wax sculptures of dancers, bathing women, and horses. He thought of having his wax sculptures cast in bronze, but in fact casts were only made in 1919, after his death. The caster Adrien Hébrard used the lost-wax method to produce 22 or more casts of each sculpture.

Failing eyesight in his last years restricted Degas’s production and may have contributed to the broadening of his technique, but this had little impact on the overall development of his career in its gradual shift from the explicit modernity of his scenes of the 1870s to the richer and more simplified colour effects of his later work. He died in Paris in 1917.