Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas, July 19, 1834 (Paris, France); died September 27, 1917 (Paris, France)
Impressionist painter and sculptor; expressive use of line; vivid-colored pastels; depictions of horse racing, dancers, and women bathing.
One of the world's greatest draftsmen, Edgar Degas has been credited as the link between classical and modernist art. He mastered painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography - taking up the latter in earnest from 1895 onward. Noting his talent, Degas's wealthy parents allowed him to have a studio at home, and by the age of twenty he was determined to become an artist. His early pieces were influenced by the work of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Eugene Delacroix; in 1855 he met Ingres who gave him his famous advice to "follow the lines". Degas enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and spent three years studying in Italy. He first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865, and was one of the Societe Anonyme des Artistes who exhibited together from 1874 onward. The first show included work by Degas, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and was later labeled pejoratively the "Exhibition of the Impressionists" by critic Louis Leroy because the artists' style of insufficient detail, obvious brushstrokes, and use of unblended colors. Throughout his career, Degas was supported by his greatest patron, gallery owner Paul Durand-Ruel. Not everyone understood or liked Degas's work at first, but by 1880 his paintings, with their composition of unusual angles and loose, rapid brushstrokes, were being warmly received. Yet his masterpiece sculpture, a wax and fabric model (later cast in bronze) Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (c. 1880-1881), still divided opinion, provoking adoration, outrage, and disgust. In 1886 Degas's works were shown in New York, and in 1905 Degas and many of the impressionists exhibited paintings in London. Somewhat misogynous, Degas never married, considering women a poor second to his art. Yet many of his famous works depict dancers and working women, such as laundresses and seamstresses. Toward the end of his life he was plagued by failing eyesight, but somehow retained an ability to sketch, paint, and sculpt.
To know: Degas exhibited in seven of the eight impressionists exhibitions, but was keen to distance his style from impressionism. He openly criticized the plain air technique declaring: "If I were the government I would have a special brigade of gendarmerie to keep an eye on artists who paint landscapes from nature...". He also became embroiled in "The Dreyfus Affair", a debate that divided France in which a Jewish soldier, Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused of treason. Dega's insistence that Dreyfus was guilty revealed his anti-Semitism, and he lost many of his impressionist friends as a result.