Friday, March 2, 2012

Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas was a french impressionist artist born in Paris in 1834. His role model for most of his life was his father, since he was the oldest of five children and tragically lost his mother at age 13. Yet after years of schooling when his father wanted him to be a lawyer, Degas refused and instead decided to pursue his artistic dream. Degas had a natural talent for drawing and painting since the time he was young, and he found his classes at the law school to be unbearable boring (Thomson).

Although his early work was well-received in the Parisian salons of the time, Degas soon turned against the rigid structure France's art scene and joined the Impressionists. This is when he became more experimental in his artwork, exploring a number of different subjects, and eventually using "virtually every medium known in his lifetime"(Brettell 7), including pencil, charcoal, oil paint, pastel and bronze (DeVonyar). Degas himself never liked the word impressionist, he preferred to be called a realist, however he is often considered one of the most important painters in the founding of impressionist art. As he grew older, Degas began to gradually lose his eyesight, fearing that he might become totally blind by the mid-1880s (DeVonyar). As his eyesight grew worse, his work become more and more expressive and less realistic, pushing him farther and farther away from fame during his lifetime. Like many artists though, he was recognized and held in high regard after his death and is still admired by so many today.

Although Degas studied, drew, painted, and sculpted a number of different subjects, he is best known for his work with dancers, specifically ballerinas. This is the main reason I chose to research him, because I am a dancer myself and have been dancing ballet my whole life. When I was younger, my mother used to take me to the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York to see Degas' ballerinas, especially his famous statue, Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.

Degas. Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, c. 1881, wax and costume

This sculpture has caused a lot of controversy since some people find the dancer to be ugly and snobbish-looking. The dancer is standing in fourth position, with her arms stretched behind her back and her nose up in the air. The most striking part of this sculpture the first time it was exhibited is the fact that Degas dressed her in real clothing; real ballet slippers, a real gauze tutu with a linen bodice (Brettell 97). Degas spent years studying and preparing for this sculpture, drawing and sketching fourth position over and over again, so he could perfect it from every angle. 

Degas. Studies for Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, c. 1878-1880, pencil, charcoal, and pastel on green paper

In preparation for the sculpture, Degas made a smaller, model statuette and "at least sixteen preparatory studies" (Brettell). The study sketches shown above represent just a small portion of the preliminary work that went into this piece. It also shows his use of a variety of different mediums, all in one drawing, even just at the sketching/studying phase. 

Degas was absolutely fascinated by dancers. He spent a lot of time at the dance studio, watching class or observing rehearsals, sketching the whole time (Thomson). What makes his work unique is that he does not show dancers posing on stage, in full costume and makeup, but rather he shows them resting, stretching, adjusting, or sometimes just thinking in class or rehearsal. Placing his dancers in a relaxed setting, either in the studio or backstage rather than on the stage itself, makes his subjects more relatable and realistic than their magical stage personas of fairies, princesses, or nymphs. He presents the dancers as people rather than as characters. 

Degas. The Dance Class, c. 1874, oil on canvas

Another one of his most famous works, The Dance Class, shows this more realistic portrayal of the ballet world. There is only one girl actually dancing in the center, with the rest of the dancers off to the sides, yet the focus is not even on the girl in the middle. It is almost as if she is part of the background, and the girl adjusting her skirt on the side of the room is the main character of this piece. The point of view of the painting is that of another dancer, or maybe a musician or a teacher, as opposed to the view of an audience or the rest of society. His work shows that there is more to being a dancer than just tiaras, tutus and pink satin shoes; Degas shows the hours of work and hardships faced by dancer in everyday life during the 19th century (DeVonyar).


Brettell, Richard R., and Suzanne Folds McCullagh. Degas in the Art Institute of Chicago. New York, New York: The Art Institute of Chicago and Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1984. Print.
DeVonyar, Jill, and Richard Kendall. Degas and the Dance. New York, New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. and the American Federation of Arts, 2002. Print.
Thomson, Richard. The Private Degas. New York, New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1987. Print.

Josephine Holasek

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