Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was born in 1834 in Paris, France. Degas was from a privileged background, born of a well-to-do family in Paris. After studying law briefly, and with little enthusiasm, he turned to art in 1855 after meeting Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, attending the École des Beaux-Arts for a time. Degas spent from the summer of 1856 until 1858 in Italy, copying from the Old Masters, until he returned to Paris in 1859. Whilst he became associated with the Impressionists, Degas belonged to a slightly older generation of artists, which is apparent in the naturalist style of his early portraits and interiors. Degas would exhibit at the Salon for the first time in 1865, and would continue to do so annually during the next five years. From 1870 to 1872, Degas enlisted in the National Guard, returning to Paris in 1873 following the Franco-Prussian War.
In 1874, Degas would join the fledgling Impressionist group, taking a lead in the organisation of the eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. Unlike many of the group, Degas did not paint en plein air nor did he paint landscapes, instead casting his gaze upon contemporary urban subjects from café and opera scenes to those living on the fringes of this world: lone drinkers, laundresses, milliners, and prostitutes. Degas’ most recognised subject are his ballerinas, seen in dance classes, at rest, rehearsing, and performing. During this period, Degas would develop a particularly close friendship with Mary Cassatt, who also shared a similarly affluent upbringing, which – though they would drift apart over several clashes of opinion – remain until his death.
Degas’ success during the 1870s and the 1980s meant that he was able to indulge his passion for collecting works by artists he admired, from Old Masters, such as El Greco, to his contemporaries, including Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gaugain and Vincent Van Gogh. In the mid-1880s, his vision began to fail and the more forgiving medium of pastel became increasingly important to the artist, who fully exploited its soft, blurred contours and colouristic effects. Likewise, the medium of sculpture allowed Degas to use his hands rather than his eyes in moulding the pliant wax. In these later years, the bather became an increasingly dominant subject of his work. Degas’ deteriorating eyesight eventually forced him to cease making art sometime between 1910 and 1912. Degas died in Paris on 27 September 1917.
Degas’ work can be found in the following selected international collections: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the State Hermitage, St. Petersburg; the Albertina, Vienna; Kunstmuseum Basel; Musée d’Orsay, Paris; Louvre, Paris; Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon; the National Gallery, London; the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.
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