“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” ~ Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas was a French Impressionist painter and sculptor who created scenes of dancers and was renowned as an exceptional portraitist. Born as Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas on April 19, 1834, his upper middle class parents encouraged his artistic abilities from an early age. After attending Lycée Louis-le-Grand to study languages and history, he gained permission to copy works of art at the Louvre in 1853 and studied privately with Louis Lamothe (1822-1869), who taught in the traditional Academic style. Degas attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris two years later. He continued his education there for a year before dropping out to travel Italy where he encountered many influential paintings and frescoes. He primarily painted in the Academic style until 1855. Thereafter, he focused more on scenes from modern day Paris, preferring indoor artificial lighting as opposed to the more popular plein-air style of painting in natural light. He created a series of ballet paintings and sketches in the 1870’s, producing nearly 1500 paintings with an emphasis on the movement of the human body. The modern Japanese art influenced Degas’ style as he incorporated unusual vantage points and asymmetrical framing. The Eastern way of cropping and the asymmetry of subjects became a consistent pattern in Degas’ paintings.
In his early paintings he used mostly oil, but after 1875, Degas switched to utilizing mainly pastels. It was during this time that he and his fellow colleagues Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley formed the Société Anonyme des Artistes, which translates to the Society of Independent Artists, a group that was created to be free from the Salon’s harsh rules and regulations. This assembly of men gained the label of being Impressionists though Degas preferred to think of himself as a “realist”. By 1855, his most important paintings were completed with pastels and were primarily nudes. His most popular portraits were "The Dancing Class" (1871), "The Dance Class" (1874), "Woman Ironing" (1873) and "Dancers Practicing at the Bar" (1877); all modern women completing everyday tasks though they were in strange and unusual positions. They were given mixed reviews at his exhibitions as some were unable to determine if they were “ugly” or exquisite for the realistic portrayal. He experimented with engraving, monotype and photography though excelled with sculpture. With failing eyesight in the 1880s, he began to focus entirely on the dancing women and nudes, turning almost entirely to sculptures as his eyesight declined. In the mid-1890s, Degas became caught up in a Parisian situation regarding a Jewish captive whose innocence was clouded by the fact that he was Jewish. Degas publically projected his own anti-Semitist believes which cast him in a dismal light to many of his followers. There was also rumor of his misogynistic portrayal of women which, when combining the two biases, pushed his work out of favor with much of society. He continued to create sculptures until 1912 when his eyesight failed him completely. He passed away in 1917 at the age of 83, leaving behind a notorious legacy with highly detailed scenes that screamed with precision. His works were of the most precise and meticulously thought out pieces in history with Degas claiming that, "If painting weren't difficult, it wouldn't be so fun."