Edgar Degas
1834 - 1912

Degas style and technique:

Page Content : Early Years, Degas's Techniques, Degas and Impressionism, Key Themes in Degas Artwork, Degas and Photography

Degas' sheer energy, his urge to capture fleeting movement in its countless nuances resulted in a prodigious series of paintings, pastels, monotypes, drawings and eventually wax sculpture. Apart from the portraits it is almost impossible to find a Degas where movement and action are not inherent, yet his method was the exact opposite of the Impressionists. He did not attempt to capture moment in a quick stroke of the brush there is nothing impulsive about Degas. Everything is studied, planed and executed in the studio in the controlled conditions.

Degas was experimenting with new techniques and revitalizing neglected media such as pastel, gouache, and even distemper (used for painting scenery) in an attempt to transcend what were new appearing to be the limitation of oil paint. Abandoning oil means he could paint rapidly an a paper support which could be infinitely extended by sticking separate pieces of paper together as required. In another vain he was experimenting with alternatives to the traditional gilt frames. Having revolutionized the framing of subjects within the composition, he now addressed himself to the immediate environment of the picture, even including the decor and lighting of the exhibition room himself.

In his last years his eyesight, which had troubled him all his life, began to fail. He kept going until his death, turning increasingly to sculpture to express himself and producing, ironically, in his last years, his most impressionistic and colorful works in pastel.

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Early Years:

The portraits, self-portraits, genre paintings, copies of frescos and old masters produced in Degas' youth bespoke a solid if somewhat unexciting future for the artist. The abundance of self-portraits at such an early age testifies to Degas' single-minded obsession not only with art , but with himself.

By the early 1870s Degas had emerged from his deep and intensive involvement in the past and its forms and, following the example of Manet, he was beginning to apply himself to painting the world of modern Paris, in particular its people (and horses) in motion. Unlike the Impressionist with whom he was to be deeply involved Degas had shown little interest in landscape. But his landscapes of the late 1860s are delicate, imaginary pastels which were done in the studio, whilst the monotypes of the 1890s are even more imaginary, appearing to be almost completely abstract.

Degas's Techniques:

However, Degas would endlessly experiment with unusual techniques. He would sometimes mix his pastel so heavily with liquid fixative that it became amalgamated into a sort of paste. He would do a drawing in charcoal and use layers of pastel to cover part of this. He would combine pastels and oil in a single work. He would even pass through a press a heavily pigmented charcoal drawing in order to transfer the excess of pigment onto a new sheet so as to make an inverse proof of the original. In his monotypes he used etching in a new way: he inked the unetched plate and drew with a brush in this layer of ink; then he removed all the ink in places to obtain strong contrasts of light and dark or painterly effects in this printing medium. Thus, in a variety of ways Degas succeeded in obtaining a richness of surface effects.

In the 1880s, when his eyesight began to fail, Degas began increasingly to work in two new media that did not require intense visual acuity: sculpture and pastel. In his sculpture, as in his paintings, he attempted to catch the action of the moment, and his ballet dancers and female nudes are depicted in poses that make no attempt to conceal their subjects' physical exertions.
His pastels are usually simple compositions containing only a few figures. He was obliged to depend on vibrant colors and meaningful gestures rather than on precise lines and careful detailing, but, in spite of such limitations, these works are eloquent and expressive and have a simple grandeur unsurpassed by any of his other works.

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Degas and Impressionism:

In the 1860s he was introduced to Impressionism by Édouard Manet and gave up his academic aspirations,
turning for his subject matter to the fast-moving city life of Paris, particularly the ballet, theatre, circus, racetrack, and cafes. He is often considered an Impressionist, but his preoccupation with draftsmanship and composition was not characteristic of the group and his work sometimes goes more in classical and realist directions.

Degas exhibited with the impressionists in seven of the eight impressionist exhibitions from 1874 to 1886.

The relationship of Degas' work to the other Impressionists was to be market both by his experiences in Italy and by his abiding interest in the human form as opposed to the landscape.

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Key Themes in Degas Artwork:


Degas was especially attracted by the spectacle of the ballet with its elegance
of costume and scenery, its movement which was at once spontaneous and restrained, its artificial lighting, and its unusual viewpoints. Usually he depicted the ballerinas off guard, showing them backstage at an awkward moment as they fasten a slipper or droop exhausted after a difficult practice session. He strip his dancers of their glamour, to show them without artifice.


Cafe interiors, Laundry women and Milliners

Degas and Photography:

Edgar Degas used photography in his early training years, when he made numerous copies of Italian old masters from photographs. The notebooks he kept throughout his life are filled with photographers' addresses,
and he is known to have briefly frequented Nadar at the end of the 1860s. In the mid-1890s, he began taking pictures himself.

His choice of subject was unfashionable. He favored distinctly posed interior portraits, and cared little about the quality of prints, which he entrusted to a local photographer. He used artificial light to photograph friends such as Renoir, Verhaeren, and the Mallarmé and Halevy families, and made numerous self-portraits. Photography offered relaxation for his tired eyes.

While Degas was always extremely critical of his paintings, he was proud of his photographs, though he steadfastly refused to exhibit them.

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