Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Edgar Degas by Tim Kowalczyk

I chose Degas because I've always admired, and been inspired by, his blending of line and value to produce lively images. His technique, even in painting, is very much like that of drawing; I wanted to learn more about and from a favorite artist.

Early Life

Degas was born in 1834 to a family of bankers, and was educated in classical and ancient literature in history at Paris’ LycĂ©e Louis-le-Grand. His father noticed his talents early, and encouraged Edgar through frequent visits to Paris museums. He trained under Louis Lamothe in the traditional academic style, and later took several extended trips to Italy where he drew extensively (often working from paintings or sculptures).

Copy after Botticelli (The Birth of Venus)
ca. 1858-59
Pencil on paper
Note the emergence of Degas' linear and shaded style; this would be carried over into his later paintings, pastels, and drawings.
Emerging Style
Study for Young Spartans Exercising

Young Spartans Exercising
ca. 1860
Oil on canvas
Note the physical forms and use of contortion Degas would further explore in his later work.

Degas’ early Young Spartans Exercising showed the emergence of his distinctive style, [particularly his treatment of “Montmartre type” young women. Following a showing of his work in the Salon in 1865, Degas embraced this distinctive style in painting scenes from modern life. He began painting dancers, perhaps his most distinctive subject matter, in about 1870.

Degas’ work depicted modern women and Parisian commoners, with dancers becoming his main focus (he would paint some 1,500 works in which they are the subject). He used his “finished” works as studies of human form and discipline, often placing his subjects in contorted postures or unusual perspectives.
Degas' early work, mostly in oil, does show many similarities to drawing (echoing his education's emphasis on draftsmanship). Degas used light and color to define his forms and add volume, which he would then reinforce with the careful application of bold, energetic line. Degas balances the use of line, to clearly establish his forms in space, and color, to add volume, motion, and ambiguity. An excellent example of this is The Laundress, ca. 1869, below. Note Degas' phantasmal third arm to evoke motion, reputation, and stasis. (I like to think that this maneuver of not concealing a "mistake" is, for us drawing students, something to be learned from.)
The Laundress
ca. 1869
Oil on canvas
Dancers in Green
ca. 1880
Pastel and gouache on paper
Note the combination of line to establish form and color and light to define it.
Degas was influenced from the mid-1850s by the asymmetry and field of view of Japanese prints, as well as the cropping of subjects explored by Italian Mannerists. Degas later codified unique vantage points and unconventional framing as part of his style, especially in his many pastels.
Degas was a sort of artistic polymath, exploring engraving, photography, and monotype in addition to more traditional media. He used pastels for finished works by 1885, having begun using pastel studies in the mid-1870s (to that time, pastels were usually used for studies or less “formal” works).
Degas also combined media and textural experimentation to give his works more visual interest, often mixing various materials of applying them unconventionally.
From the late 1880s, Degas suffered from deteriorating eyesight. He focused almost completely on dancers and nudes, and turned more and more to sculpture. His two-dimensional work was almost sculptural, entirely unposed and not at all self-aware.

Dancer Leaning on a Pillar
ca. 1895-1898
Charcoal on paper
Note the rough style and loose marks of Degas' later years as his sight deteriorated.
The artist became morose, withdrawn, and reclusive as his health continued to deteriorate. He worked relentlessly until 1912, five years before his death at the age of eighty-three.


Christopher Lloyd, Edgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014).

"Edgar Degas: The Complete Works," last modified 2016.

"Edgar Degas (1834-1917): Painting and Drawing," last modified October 2004.

"WikiArt: Visual Art Encyclopedia," last modified 2016.

"WikiArt: Visual Art Encyclopedia," last modified 2016.

All images used under Fair Use

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