Edgar Degas (1834–1917) was prolific in paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings. He was fond of the subject of dance, and more than half of his works depict dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, although Degas rejected the term, preferring to be called a Realist. He was masterly in depicting movement, as can be seen in his many masterpieces of dancers, racecourse subjects, and female nudes.
Upon Degas’s death, more than 150 figurative sculptures were found in his studio. Most were made of wax, clay, and plasticine. Many had deteriorated. Except for the wax “Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer,” none of the other sculptures had been publicly exhibited during the Degas’s lifetime.
A Tour of Edgar Degas’ Art
- Three Dancers at a Dance Class
- “Three Dancers at a Dance Class” by Edgar Degas depicts one of Degas’s favorite themes, dancers captured in casual off-stage poses. The artist’s interest influenced the painting’s diagonal composition in Japanese woodcut prints. The bench is part of an overall layout that allows Degas to explore a variety of poses. He has composed a seated figure, a figure with a raised leg, and a figure is standing. Ballet classes provided Degas with the opportunity to study the human body during periods of rest and focused activity. Museum: Queensland Art Gallery
- The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (MET)
- “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” by Edgar Degas is a sculpture begun about 1880 by Edgar Degas of a young student at the Paris Opera Ballet dance school. The statue is one-third life-size and was initially sculpted in wax. The dancer is dressed in a bodice, tutu and ballet slippers. This sculpture is one of 28 bronze repetitions that appear in museums around the world, which were cast after Degas’ death. The tutus worn by the bronzes vary from museum to museum. The arms are taut, and the legs and feet are placed in a ballet position, and there is tension in the pose, an image of a young adolescent ballerina being put through her paces. The sculpture depicts one of Degas’s favorite themes, dancers captured in various poses. Ballet dancers were one of Degas’ favorite subjects. Museum: Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET
- Orchestra Musicians
- “Orchestra Musicians” by Edgar Degas depicts in the foreground part of the opera orchestra in which only the back of three musicians is visible in the bottom half of the composition, dominated by the black and white of their clothing. The top half of the composition is the opera stage with ballet dances in full light, color, and movement. There is a distinct contrast between the youthful dances and the older aged male musicians who are squeezed together, as their black coats merge into one dark mass. Degas initially painted a different version of the “Orchestra Musicians” in 1872 but revised it a few years later, enlarging it and converting the horizontal format into a vertical. He also overpainted parts of the original composition. Museum: Städel Museum
- The Bath: Woman Sponging Her Back
- “The Bath: Woman Sponging Her Back” by Edgar Degas depicts a female bather as she bends forward in her tub and sponges her back. This pastel drawing is part of a series of drawings, preliminary sketches in pastels and oils by Degas from this period that depict women bathing. Degas often used sketches as a preliminary step to study the light and the composition for his paintings. This work is part of a series of preliminary sketches in pastels which depict women bathing, some showing women in awkward, unnatural positions. Degas said he intended to create a feeling in the viewer: “as if you looked through a keyhole.” Museum: Honolulu Museum of Art
- After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself
- “After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself” by Edgar Degas depicts a woman sitting on white towels spread over a wicker chair, with her back to the viewer. Her body is arched and slightly twisted, creating tension in her back, accentuated by the deep line of her backbone. This pastel drawing is part of a series of drawings, preliminary sketches, and completed works in pastels and oils by Degas from this period that depict women bathing. Degas examined the human figure with its many nuances in his series of nude bathers. Degas set up tubs and basins in his studio and asked his models to go through their usual routines during their baths and personal care. He captured them in their natural poses and from different perspectives to reveal new compositions. In this impressionist artwork, Degas has created an intimate and spontaneous piece of art that captures the dynamic act of bathing. Museum: The National Gallery, London
- Woman Drying Herself
- “Woman Drying Herself” by Edgar Degas depicts a naked female bather as she bends forward to dry her hair. This pastel drawing is part of a series of drawings, preliminary sketches in pastels and oils by Degas from this period that depict women bathing. Degas often used sketches as a preliminary step to study the light and the composition for his paintings. This work is part of a series of preliminary sketches in pastels which depict women bathing, some showing women in awkward, unnatural positions. Museum: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
- After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Back
- “After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Back” by Edgar Degas is a print of a female bather kneeling on a chair covered with towels as she arches her back over the backrest of the chair as if to pick something up with her right hand. This print is part of a series of photographs, prints, drawings, preliminary sketches in pastels and oils by Degas from this period that depicts women during the bathing process. Degas often used sketches and photography as a preliminary step to study the light and the composition for his paintings. Museum: Getty Museum
- Mary Cassatt
- “Mary Cassatt” by Edgar Degas depicts the American impressionist artist who was a lifelong friend of Degas and served as a model for him on several occasions. Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844 – 1926) was an American painter who lived much of her adult life in France, where she first befriended Edgar Degas and later exhibited among the Impressionists. Stifled by traditional art, she regarded her exposure to the work of Edgar Degas in 1874 as a turning point in her artistic life. Despite her high regard for Degas’ work, Cassatt did not like this portrayal of her, commenting: “It has artistic qualities but is so painful and represents me as a person so repugnant that I would not wish it to be known that I posed for it.” Museum: National Portrait Gallery (United States)
- Woman Washing
- “Woman Washing” by Edgar Degas depicts a female bather washing the back of her neck with a washcloth. This pastel drawing is part of a series of drawings, preliminary sketches in pastels and oils by Degas that depict women bathing. Degas often used sketches as a preliminary step to study the light and the composition for his paintings. This work is part of a series of drawings in pastels which depict women bathing, some showing women in awkward, unnatural positions. Degas, said, he intended to create a feeling in the viewer: “as if you looked through a keyhole.” Museum: Museo Soumaya
- Name: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas
- Born: 1834 – Paris, France
- Died: 1917 (aged 83) – Paris, France
- Nationality: French
- Movement: Impressionism
- Notable works:
Edgar Degas Insights
- Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas was born in Paris, France, in 1834.
- He was the eldest son of a wealthy banker, and a Creole woman from New Orléans, who died when Degas was 13.
- His father appreciated his son’s artistic talent, but he wanted his son to become a lawyer, so Degas duly enrolled in law school, but soon dropped out.
- His teachers encouraged Degas to copy the Old Masters at the Louvre. This advice became early practice, and he made many copies of works by Michelangelo, Raphael, and other Renaissance artists.
- Degas was also a sculptor but did not make his sculptures for the public.
- The only sculpture Degas ever exhibited publicly was The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, in 1881.
- Dancers were frequent subjects in his art, particularly the dancers of the Paris Opera.
- He is famous for his paintings of ballerinas, at work, in rehearsal, or at rest.
- A significant theme of Degas’ work was paintings of women in the bath or at their toilette.
- Degas’ interest in the female nude, persisted throughout his career.
- Horses and horse racing were also key subjects of Degas’s work.
- Degas produced some 45 oil paintings of horse races.
- Degas lived into the 20th century, and promoted his work tirelessly and became an art collector.
- He did have close relationships with several women, including the American painter Mary Cassatt.
- Edgar Degas sided with the “anti-Dreyfusards” the Dreyfus Affair. His antisemitism alienated him from many of his friends.
- Degas was troubled with eye problems. He had to wear dark glasses outdoors and stop his work in 1912.
- Edgar Degas died in Paris in 1917. He was 83 years old.
- Degas never married.
- Today Degas is considered a pioneer of the Impressionism movement.
- After nearly 140 years, does she still shock and amaze?
A Tour of Artists and their Art
- Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510)
- Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)
- Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528)
- Michelangelo (1475 – 1564)
- Raphael (1483 – 1520)
- Titian (1488 – 1576)
- Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525 – 1569)
- El Greco (1541 – 1614)
- Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675)
- J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851)
- Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867)
- John Everett Millais (1829 – 1896)
- Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917)
- Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906)
- Claude Monet (1840 – 1926)
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919)
- Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926)
- John William Waterhouse (1849 – 1917)
- Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)
- John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925)
- Rupert Bunny (1864 – 1947)
- Goyō Hashiguchi (1880 – 1921)
- Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920)
- Artists and their Art
Edgar Degas Quotes
“Beauty is a mystery, but no one knows it anymore.
The recipes, the secrets are forgotten.”
“The creation of a painting takes as much trickery and premeditation as the commitment of a crime.”
“Everyone has talent at twenty-five. The difficulty is to have it at fifty.”
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
“I should like to be famous and unknown.”
“Muses work all day long and then at night, get together and dance…”
“I would rather do nothing than do a rough sketch without having looked at anything. My memories will do better.”
“Conversation in real life is full of half-finished sentences and overlapping talk. Why shouldn’t painting be too?”
“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.”
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.”
“We were created to look at one another, weren’t we?”
– Edgar Degas
Photo Credit: Edgar Degas [Public domain]