Degas aspired to be a history painter early in his career, taking after academic painters such as Ingres. Ultimately, however, he focused more on contemporary subject matter, such as cafés and individuals such as laundresses and milliners. Later in his career, he even spent much time on the controversial depiction of prostitutes – often bathing. Other favorite subjects of his include jockeys and dancers. Interestingly, racetracks and ballet performances were both settings populated mainly by the elite, giving Degas' work a sense of luxury and glamour. They also both evoke action and entertainment, making them ideal subjects for Degas’ preoccupation to portray the human body in motion.
Though Degas is often referred to as an Impressionist, he did not associate himself with the Impressionism movement. However, Degas contributed to many of the exhibitions of the Impressionist movement, causing a debate among art historians concerning his true classification. Degas himself would probably describe his paintings as Realist, with some of his later work qualifying as Post-Impressionist or Symbolist. Regardless of the variety of labels he has been given, Degas has become famous for his paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings – without a doubt, he was an artist of many mediums.
Degas’ multi-faceted career has always inspired and fascinated me. I didn’t discover Degas until I visited the Musée D’Orsay several years ago, where one of his dancer sculptures was on display. The metallic ballerina was outfitted in a real tulle skirt and satin ribbon, and Degas’ use of contrasting materials intrigued me. However, despite the vast range of materials Degas worked with during his career, his aptitude for drawing and his use of study drawings in preparation for paintings and sculptures have helped to give his work a distinctive style.
Three Studies of a Dancer in Fourth Position
The techniques utilized by Degas in his drawings seem to strongly suggest motion, with fluid, sweeping strokes giving his figures a powerful sense of mass. However, in drawing his figures, Degas did not create a sculptural effect through a process of laborious shading. Though he did sometimes choose to fill in areas with hatching, more often than not Degas used sharp, dramatic lines to create a heightened sense of light and dark.
Dancer Bending Forward
Degas also used a variety of materials, but in his drawings he seems to favor charcoal and pastels. He experimented with many different techniques for shading in his sketches, such as using both dry and wet pastel, or using gouache and watercolors to blend the heavy contours of his figures.
Four Studies of a Jockey
While certainly an excellent draughtsman, Degas is just as well known for his innovative style as he is for his actual skill. His drawing style, in its own way, is even unique from his painting, sculpting, and printmaking styles. His approach has an air of spontaneity. For example, in some drawings, the bodies of Degas’ subjects are blatantly distorted or disproportionate. Degas also experimented with leaving behind evidence of reworking his drawings, with marks and smudges indicating the changes he had made throughout his artistic process. Finally, Degas’ often scribbled, using messy, wayward lines to fill in dark spaces.
After the Bath (Woman Drying Her Feet)
Degas’ unconventional techniques, matched with his unconventional subject choices, have helped make his art so memorable. His exploration of drawing as a medium greatly influenced the style of his sculptures and paintings, as well, both of which were very influential on the progression of their relative genres.
Boggs, John Sutherland. Degas. New York, NY: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1996. Print.
Lipton, Eunice. Looking Into Degas: Uneasy Images of Women and Modern Life. 1st ed. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1986. Print.
Schenkel, Ruth. "Edgar Degas (1834–1917): Painting and Drawing." Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Metropolitan Museum of Art , 2011. Web. 1 Mar 2011.
Thomson, Richard. The Private Degas. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1987. Print.
"Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans." Musée D'Orsay Index of Works. Web. 1 Mar 2011.