“You must have a clear idea, not only what you do, but also what one you could do in the future, otherwise there is no reason to work.”
– Edgar Degas, c. 1903
Edgar Degas was a painter, printmaker, sculptor and photographer. A founding member of the Impressionists in 1874, he exhibited in seven of their eight exhibitions. He considered himself a realist and believed that landscapes were for backgrounds. Inspired by the city of Paris, he provided his audience with intimate views of its citizen’s lives from somber portraits to contemporary scenes of races, ballet, theatre, laundresses etc.
Born into a wealthy family of bankers, Degas showed an interest in art from a young age often visiting museums with his Italian-born father. He registered himself as a copyist at the Louvre and at the Cabinet des Estampes of the Bibliothèque Nationale. He briefly studied law at the Faculté de Droit but was firm in his conviction to become an artist. In 1855 he entered the École des Beaux-Arts and studied painting with Louis Lamothe, a student of the painter Jean Dominique Ingres. Degas would eventually meet Ingres, who had become a key influence in his practice. The famous artist is reported to have advised him “Faites des traits jeune hommes, beaucoup de traits.” (“Draw lines young man, lots of lines”). In 1856 he traveled to Italy to study the masterworks of the Italian Renaissance, stopping in Naples to visit family. He spent three years in Rome with other visiting French artists. Returning from Italy Degas rented a large studio in the Ninth Arrondissement in Paris, an area where he would live until his death. A confirmed bachelor, Degas loved Paris and left it rarely, visiting Italy only occasionally and London for the first time in his late thirties. His trip to New Orleans in Louisiana, in the early 1870’s to visit his mother’s relatives, was a major undertaking.
Independently wealthy, Degas had no need to exhibit and sell paintings to live, as such his works were alive with experimentation; angles, views, and subject matter were all open to the artist. In Dancers at the Bar (c. 1900) the translucent, vaporously layered, skirt is used to both shield and highlight the form of the dancers. A close study of this unfinished pastel reveals some of the artist techniques. Degas used steam to fix the blue of the dancers skirts to the paper and he extended the charcoal, which delineates the hem of the dancers skirt with a wet brush, this technique adds greatly to an understanding of the delicate weight of the material. Degas also used unconventional techniques to add detail to the baseboards by first smudging the brown pastel then attacking it with an eraser to create the detail highlights.
In Racehorses Degas fuses his photography practice and keen ability with pastels to capture the lively atmosphere at the race track just prior to the starting gate call. The skittish thoroughbred horses, which leap off the side of the picture frame, the massing in the middle of the scene, and the jockeys blurred with vibrating energy all work to lend the viewer the impression that the moment was moving too quickly for a camera to capture.
Degas began to loose his eyesight in the 1880s. His diminishing ability to see would lead to further experimentation with his drawing and painting techniques as well as sculpture. Beyond his shimmering paintings, iridescent pastels, and accomplished sculptures Degas will be remembered as an artist whose work was alive with experimentation