Edgar Degas (born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, 19 July 1834 – 27 September 1917), was a French artist famous for his paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings. He is especially identified with the subject of dance; more than half of his works depict dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, although he rejected the term, and preferred to be called a realist. He was a superb draftsman, and particularly masterful in depicting movement, as can be seen in his renditions of dancers, racecourse subjects and female nudes. His portraits are notable for their psychological complexity and for their portrayal of human isolation.
At the beginning of his career, he wanted to be a history painter, a calling for which he was well prepared by his rigorous academic training and close study of classic art. In his early thirties, he changed course, and by bringing the traditional methods of a history painter to bear on contemporary subject matter, he became a classical painter of modern life.
Degas is often identified as an Impressionist, an understandable but insufficient description. Impressionism originated in the 1860s and 1870s and grew, in part, from the realism of such painters as Courbet and Corot. The Impressionists painted the realities of the world around them using bright, “dazzling” colors, concentrating primarily on the effects of light, and hoping to infuse their scenes with immediacy.
Degas’s only showing of sculpture during his life took place in 1881 when he exhibited The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, only shown again in 1920; the rest of the sculptural works remained private until a posthumous exhibition in 1918.
During his life, public reception of Degas’s work ranged from admiration to contempt. As a promising artist in the conventional mode, Degas had a number of paintings accepted in the Salon between 1865 and 1870. These works received praise from Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and the critic, Jules-Antoine Castagnary. He soon joined forces with the Impressionists, however, and rejected the rigid rules, judgements, and elitism of the Salon—just as the Salon and general public initially rejected the experimentalism of the Impressionists.
“Everyone has talent at twenty-five. The difficulty is to have it at fifty.” (Auden & Kronenberger 1966)
“In painting you must give the idea of the true by means of the false.” (Auden & Kronenberger 1966)