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Degas: Light as a Tutu of a Ballet Student of the Paris Opers

Exhibition: The Art of Pastel From Degas to Redon


Date: 15 September 2017 – 8 April 2018


Venue: Le Petit Palais 


The Dancing Class (detail), c. 1870. Oil on wood, 19.7 x 27 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York


Edgar Degas was closest to Pierre-Auguste Renoir in the Impressionist’s circle, for both favoured the animated Parisian life of their day as a motif in their paintings. Degas did not attend Charles Gleyre’s studio; most likely he first met the future Impressionists at the Café Guerbois. It is not known exactly where he met Édouard Manet. Perhaps they were introduced to one another by a mutual friend, the engraver Félix Bracquemond, or perhaps Manet, struck by Degas’ audacity, first spoke to him at the Louvre in 1862. Two months after meeting the Impressionists, Degas exhibited his canvases with Claude Monet’s group, and became one of the most loyal of the Impressionists: not only did he contribute works to each of their exhibitions except the seventh, he also participated very actively in organising them. All of which is curious, because he was rather distinct from the other Impressionists.


The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the rue Le Petelier, 1872. Oil on canvas, 32.7 x 46.3 cm.
Musée d’Orsay , Paris.


Degas came from a completely different milieu than that of Monet, Renoir, and Alfred Sisley. His grandfather René-Hilaire de Gas, a grain merchant, had been forced to flee from France to Italy in 1793 during the French Revolution. Business prospered for him there. After establishing a bank in Naples, de Gas wed a young girl from a rich Genoan family. Edgar preferred to write his name simply as Degas, although he happily maintained relations with his numerous de Gas relatives in Italy.


Orchestra Musicians, 1872. Oil on canvas, 69 x 49 cm. Städel-Museum , Frankfurt.


Enviably stable by nature, Degas spent his entire life in the neighbourhood where he was born. He scorned and disliked the Left Bank, perhaps because that was where his mother had died. In 1850, Edgar Degas completed his studies at Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and, in 1852, received his degree in law. Because his family was rich, his life as a painter unfolded far more smoothly than for the other Impressionists.


After the Bath, c. 1896. Pastel, 89.5 x 116.8 cm.
The Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts , Philadelphia.


Degas started his apprenticeship in 1853 at the studio of Louis-Ernest Barrias and, beginning in 1854, studied under Louis Lamothe, who revered Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres above all others and transmitted his adoration for this master to Edgar Degas. Degas’ father was not opposed to his son’s choice. On the contrary: when, after the death of his wife, he moved to Rue Mondovi, he set up a studio for Edgar on the fourth floor, from which the Place de la Concorde could be seen over the rooftops. Edgar’s father himself was an amateaur painter and connoisseur; he introduced his son to his many friends. Among them were Achille Deveria, curator of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Bibliothèque Nationale, who permitted Edgar to copy from the drawings of the Old Masters: Rembrandt, Dürer, Goya, Holbein.


Two Dancers Entering the Stage, 1877-1878. Pastel on monotype, 38.1 x 35 cm. Fogg Art Museum , Cambridge


His father also introduced him to his friends in the Valpinçon family of art collectors, at whose home the future painter met the great Ingres. All his life Degas would remember Ingres’ advice as one would remember a prayer: “Draw lines … Lots of lines, whether from memory or from life” (Paul Valéry, Écrits sur l’Art [Writings on Art], Paris, 1962). Starting in 1854, Degas travelled frequently to Italy: first to Naples, where he made the acquaintance of his numerous cousins, and then to Rome and Florence where he copied tirelessly from the Old Masters. His drawings and sketches already revealed very clear preferences: Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Andrea Mantegna, but also Benozzo Gozzoli, Ghirlandaio, Titian, Fra Angelico, Uccello, and Botticelli. He went to Orvieto Cathedral specifically to copy from the frescoes of Luca Signorelli, and visited Perugia and Assisi. The pyrotechnics of Italian painting dazzled him. Degas was lucky like no other.


The Morning Bath, c. 1887-1890. Pastel on off-white laid paper mounted on board, 70.6 x 43.3 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago , Chicago.


One can only marvel at the sensitivity Edgar’s father demonstrated with respect to his son’s vocation, at his insight into his son’s goals, and at the way he was able to encourage the young painter. “You’ve taken a giant step forwards in your art, your drawing is strong, your colour tone is precise,” he wrote his son. “You no longer have anything to worry about, my dear Edgar, you are progressing beautifully. Calm your mind and, with tranquil and sustained effort, stick to the furrow that lies before you without straying. It’s your own – it is no one else’s. Go on working calmly, and keep to this path” (J. Bouret, Degas, Paris, 1987).


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