Edgar Degas was born on July 10, 1834 in Paris and died there on September 27, 1917. He was the only 19th century French painter to have direct family ties with America. His mother, the former Marie-Celestine Musson, was born in New Orleans and his brothers Rene and Achille worked for a time in New Orleans with their uncle, Michel Musson. Edgar was the oldest of five children; they were raised in the comfort of a well-to-do family. His father was a banker (The original spelling of their name was de Gas). Young Degas had the usual scholastic training but he was exposed to art early by his father, who often took him to museums, etc. When he graduated from the Lycee Louis le Grand in 1852, winning first prize in drawing, he already had a deep interest in art. A friend of his father’s took him to the studio of Ingres, who was seventy-five at the time. The meeting was a high point in the life of young Degas.
He entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1855; from 1856 through 1857 he made a study of Quattrocento painting while in Rome, Naples and Florence. His early work comprised history paintings and primarily portraits, influenced by Ingres. In 1864 he executed several portraits of his friend Manet. Degas soon lost interest in historical subjects and his avid curiosity swiftly led him to explore the world of theatre and the dance. These, together with scenes of the racecourse, were to become his favorite subjects.
Degas accompanied his brother to the United States in 1872 and returned the following year. The artist suddenly acquired an intense feeling for the modern, a taste for unconventional composition, and for themes, forms and rhythms taken from everyday life. He took an active role in the first Impressionist show of 1874 and several others in the following years, He also tried his hand at engraving, as did Mary Cassatt and Pissaro. In 1881 he showed his first sculpture, a small wax figure of a dancer, for he was now beginning to compensate for his weakening sight by his sense of touch. Actually, that thesis, on second thought, is nonsense. Easily disproved by the chronology. What is true is that Degas seems to have had serious eye problems as early as in his thirties, including a hypersensitivity to light that compelled him to wear dark glasses. His vision later deteriorated (he apparently lost the sight in one eye and was understandably frightened of becoming blind), but he continued to work until his late seventies.
The special talent of Edgar Degas lay in his ability to find unfamiliar beauty in the passing scene. He isolated, with a sharp eye, the significant gestures and movements of people at work, and presented them with dramatic force. What we now regard as Degas’ unique sense of composition – the subtle placement of his figures within the frame of his canvas stems from several sources: the drawings of Giovanni Bellini which he had seen and studied in Italy, the Japanese woodcuts which he enjoyed and collected, and the new art of photography.
A curious contradiction existed in Degas between the penetrating warmth of his observation, as revealed in his painting, and the ill-tempered disposition by which he made enemies as naturally as others make friends. He never married, nor had a mistress, but he did have a circle of female friends and confidants. Stubborn, aristocratic, solitary and bitter; he was feared for his biting sarcasm. He was a famous mimic with a rapier wit, terrorizing and fascinating the crowd at the Cafe Guerbois with lethal insight. To Monet he commented “I remained only a second at your exhibition. Your pictures gave me vertigo.” He seemed to use the protective armor of suspicion and hostility in his social contacts to guard against any possible interference with his work, which he pursued during his long life with tireless devotion. Though he was associated for a short period with the Impressionist painters, his own views were so inflexible that he found it impossible to follow anyone.