A Biography of Edgar Degas

Degas was a master of the past, a detail-oriented artist who revelled in recreating scenes from the Old Masters. But his work also seemed to move forward, with a modern eye for form and light. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and became renowned as a stellar portraitist, fusing Impressionistic sensibilities with traditional approaches. He enjoyed capturing female dancers and played with unusual angles and ideas around centring. His work influenced several major modern artists, including Pablo Picasso. Degas is most famous for his small-scale sculptures of ballerinas, women dancers at rest or in motion that he started working on later in life after he had become famous for his paintings. In these works he would use real people as models but also imagined scenes. He worked from photographs and from live models, sometimes from multiple angles, often combining their faces together into one image. This way of working is now known as "photomontage", which involves taking different photographs of the same subject and blending them together to create an image that did not exist before.

Early Life of Artist Edgar Degas

Degas was born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas on July 19, 1834 in Paris, France. (As an adult, Degas reverted his last name to its original spelling.) His father, Auguste, was a banker and his mother, Celestine, was from Louisiana. The family was from the middle class with noble pretensions. For many years the family spelled their name "de Gas"; the preposition "de" suggesting a land owning aristocratic background which they did not actually have.
Degas came from a very musical household his mother was an opera singer and his father occasionally arranged for musicians to give recitals in their home. Degas attended the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand, a rigorous boys' secondary school where he received a classical education.
Edgar Degas was an artist whose work spanned many styles and subjects. He also displayed a remarkable skill for drawing and painting as a child, a talent encouraged by his father, who was a knowledgeable art lover. In 1853, at the age of 18, he received permission to "copy" at the Louvre in Paris. (During the 19th century, aspiring artists developed their technique by attempting to replicate the works of the masters.) He produced several impressive copies of Raphael as well, studying the work of more contemporary painters such as Ingres and Delacroix.
Degas was rejected by the École des Beaux-Arts (formerly the Académie des Beaux-Arts) in 1855. The following year, he left school to travel and paint in Italy. While there, Degas painted detailed copies of Renaissance works by Michelangelo and da Vinci. Degas was attracted to classically linear paintings.

Early Works on Paper by Edgar Degas

Degas and his art, having grown up and matured in an age of emerging ideas and artistic innovation, is a perfect example of the struggles and triumphs of artists. After returning to Paris, Degas set out to make a name for himself as a painter. Taking a traditional approach, he painted large portraits of family members and grand historical scenes such as "The Daughter of Jephatha," "Semiramis Building Babylon" and "Scene of War in the Middle Ages." Degas submitted these works to the all-powerful Salon, a group of French artists and teachers who presided over public exhibitions. It had very rigid and conventional idea of beauty and proper artistic form and received Degas's paintings with measured indifference.
In 1862, Edgar Degas met Edouard Manet at the Louvre, and the pair quickly developed a friendly rivalry. They both disfavored the ruling art establishment as well as believed artists needed to turn to more modern techniques and subject matter.
By 1868, Degas had become a prominent member of a group of avant-garde artists including Manet, Renoir, Monet and Sisley, who gathered frequently at the Café Guerbois to discuss ways in which artists could engage the modern world. Their meetings coincided with tumultuous times in the history of France. In July 1870, the Franco-Prussian War broke out and Degas volunteered for the French National Guard. At the war's conclusion in 1871, the infamous Paris Commune seized control of the city for two terrifying months before Adolphe Thiers reestablished the Third Republic in a bloody civil war. Thankfully, Edgar Degas largely avoided the tumult of that terrible time by taking an extended trip to visit relatives in New Orleans.

Impressionists Artists

Degas, along with Monet, Sisley, and other painters, formed the Société Anonyme des Artistes (Society of Independent Artists), a group committed to putting on exhibitions free of the Salon’s control. The group of painters became known as the Impressionists, and on April 15, 1874, held the first Impressionist exhibition. The paintings Degas exhibited were modern portraits of modern women milliners, laundresses and ballet dancers painted from radical perspectives.
Degas was a French painter, sculptor, printmaker, and draftsman. Over the course of the next 12 years, the group staged eight such Impressionist exhibitions, and Degas exhibited at all of them. His most famous paintings during these years were "The Dancing Class (1871)," "The Dance Class (1874)," "Woman Ironing (1873)," and "Dancers Practicing at the Bar (1877)." In 1880, he also sculpted "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer," a sculpture so hauntingly evocative that while some critics called it brilliant, others condemned him as cruel for having made it. Degas's paintings reflect France's changing social and economic environment. His paintings portray the growth of the bourgeoisie, the emergence of a service economy and the widespread entrance of women into the workplace.
In 1886, Degas exhibited at the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in Paris 10 paintings of nude women in various stages of bathing. These nude paintings were the talk of the exhibition and also the source of controversy; some called the women ugly, while others praised the honesty of his depictions.
In the mid-1890s, an episode known as the "Dreyfus Affair" divided French society between an army of xenophobes and defenders of civil liberties. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish captain in the French military, was convicted of treason on spying charges. Although evidence that proved Dreyfus's innocence surfaced in 1896, rampant anti-Semitism kept him from being exonerated for another 10 years. With the country deeply divided between pro-Dreyfus activists and anti-Dreyfus activists, Degas sided with those whose anti-Semitism blinded them to Dreyfus's innocence. Edgar Degas was a renowned artist during his time and his stance against Dreyfus cost him many friends and much respect within the typically more tolerant avant-garde art circles.

Guide to the Degas Painting Style

Degas was a master of drawing and sculpture, as well as painting. He was also a noted racehorse breeder and gambler. The figure study is characteristic of his approach; it is a small-scale model of one of his larger finished paintings. He used this technique with all his subjects, from dancers to jockeys. Degas's technique was notable for its economy. In the early part of his career he made numerous studies for each painting, changing the position and expression of the figures until they satisfied him. Once he had settled on a composition, he would often do no further drawings but paint directly on the canvas from memory. In this small-scale model, the proportions are correct, but the execution is very sketchy, with some areas left entirely blank. In this work Degas uses little shading or gradation of color to create form; instead he uses line to define edges, and large areas of flat color to create the illusion of solidity. The use of line gives his work a graphic quality that many critics have found cold and mechanical, although others have admired it as a perfect realization of Impressionist ideals. Ever since Impressionist painter Edgar Degas discovered the art of painting, he has been one of the most influential artists in the world. His works are full of artistic elements that contribute to his unique style. Through the different elements he includes in his paintings, Degas is able to create movement and emotion within each work.

What was Edgar Degas' Sweet Spot?

Degas was an artist who lived from 1834 to 1917. He is known for paintings and sculptures of dancers, and for paintings of poor people and laundresses. Not all of these were his sweet spot; the poor people and the laundresses were what he called them, not me. Degas didn't like those things any more than I do, but he kept painting them anyway. Degas was born rich. But he made most of his money later in life, when he was already famous, by speculating in the stock market. He believed the future of art was in photography, which made him unpopular with other painters. He was friends with Toulouse-Lautrec but not immediately impressed by his art. He advised him to go into lithography instead, because it had a better future. Degas said that if he had had just a little bit less talent, he would have been just as happy being a businessman or a banker. And if you look at his pictures you can see what he liked best about being an artist: looking at nude models. He didn't like drawing or painting very much. Degas was one of the great painters of the late nineteenth century. But he didn't make his living selling paintings. Selling paintings was something he did to keep his reputation high enough that he could continue to paint what he liked. When Degas exhibited his work, it was usually in the form of pastels or drawings.... He had a sweet spot where he worked best, and for him that sweet spot involved working directly on the canvas or paper or whatever, not having it reproduced in some other medium.

The Value of Degas' Work

What is it about Degas' paintings that makes them so hard to value? And what does their difficulty tell us about art in general? First, it's worth remembering what made Degas great. He was not the first artist to paint ballet dancers, but he was the first one to make them look like real people. He made paintings of other artists painting. He made paintings of racehorses and laundresses and ballerinas, but somehow he did it better than anyone else did. The reason why Degas' work is hard to value is not because his reputation has slipped, or because tastes have changed. It's because there are too many good things in his work. The range of subjects he painted, and the range of styles he used, are each so broad that they don't even fit on the same graph. Degas' paintings have been selling for a long time, so their prices seem normal to us. But they are not normal. They are about one hundred times their value at the turn of the 20th century. This is not due to the fact that Degas' paintings have gotten better since then. His work was just as good in 1900 as it is now. The reason his prices have gone up so much is that demand has increased much more than supply. In a sense, a painting by Degas is a much harder thing to make now than it was in 1900; he had only to make it, but now someone has to want it.

A brief look at the artist's later years, death and legacy

Edgar Degas lived well into the 20th century, and though he painted less during these years, he promoted his work tirelessly and became an avid art collector. He never married, though he did count several women among his intimate friends. Degas died in Paris on September 27, 1917, at the age of 83.
Degas has always been recognized as one of the greatest Impressionist painters, but his legacy has been mixed due to misogynist overtones present in many of his sexualized portraits of women, as well as his intense anti-Semitism. Still, the sheer beauty of his early works and the distinctively modern self-consciousness of his later portraits ensure Degas a lasting legacy. One thing remains indisputable about Degas: His painting were among the most painstakingly polished and refined paintings in history. An obsessive and careful planner, Edgar Degas is the least spontaneous artist alive. If painting weren't difficult, it wouldn't be so fun.

Top 5 Famous Paintings of Edgar Degas


The most famous painting by Edgar Degas is a representation of the increasing social isolation in Paris during its stage of rapid growth. It depicts a woman and an alcoholic looking dully with a glass of Absinthe in front of her. The painting was commissioned by Absinthe Nouvelle-Athènes, a Parisian cafe well known for its association with artists, writers and absinthe. Degas asked the famous actress Ellen Andrée and Bohemian artist Marcellin Desboutin to pose as two absinthe addicts in his favorite Parisian cafe, the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes in Paris. The painting depicted is L’Absinthe (The Absinthe Drinker). The people in the painting were considered by English critics to be shockingly degraded and clumsy, and the woman was even derided as a whore. Some viewed the painting as a warning lesson against absinthe and the French in general. Later, L’Absinthe gained popularity and influenced works of many artists. It is now known for its uniqueness and considered his greatest masterpiece.


Edgar Degas was a regular visitor of the old Paris Opera House and was even allowed access to the dance classes as he was a friend of Jules Perrot, the famous ballet master. He observed the most spontaneous and natural movements of the dancers at various stages to create imaginary scenes. The above painting, along with another which shares its title, is arguably his most ambitious and remarkably complex representation of dancers. In The Rehearsal Degas masterfully depicts the confusion and movements of the dancers as the lesson is coming to an end. Perrot is conducting the lesson in the rehearsal room with a baton beating time on the floor.


Considered the greatest masterpiece of his early years, this painting depicts the tensions of his aunt Laura; her husband the baron Gennaro Bellelli; and their daughters Giulia and Giovanna. Laura is pregnant and dressed in black as she is mourning for the death of her father, who is shown in the portrait behind her. After living with his aunt for a period of time and knowing about the strains in the family, Degas painted this painting with great emotion. With a title like Family Portrait, one might expect a simple portrait of a happy family. But this painting by Edgar Degas is famous for brilliantly capturing the tension and division in the Bellelli household, the emotional distance between mother and father and its effect on their daughters.


The Rape by Edgar Degas is what you’re looking for, a famous work depicting an intriguing scene of a man and a partially clad woman in a bedroom. Scholars have attempted to read this as a representation of literary works of the time but none of the explanations have been universally accepted. It’s also known for the masterful use of light and shadow by Degas to create an intense surrounding for the enigmatic scene.


From the 1870s till his death, Degas continuously explored his favorite subject which was ballerinas. This is among his several paintings which depict the rehearsal of the ballerinas. It is interesting to note the contrast in the expressions and gestures of the dancers who are rehearsing and ones who are waiting to perform. Ballet Rehearsal paintings are among the most cherished and celebrated masterpieces created by Edgar Degas.