Once a secluded and controversial figure, Edgar Degas is now considered to be one of the great French Modernists, as well as one of the most important artists of the late nineteenth century. To mark his birthday, 183 years ago today, we’re taking a look back at the career of the self-proclaimed ‘Independent’ master.

The Artist Who Lived Apart

Born in Paris on the 19th of July, 1834, Degas was the eldest of five children born to a wealthy French banker and his American wife. After his mother died when he was 15, Degas became increasingly influenced by his father who encouraged his love of art from an early age. By 18, Degas had already turned his childhood bedroom into a studio and, after a stint as a copyist at the Louvre, a visit to the Exposition Universalle – where he met Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and was fascinated by the Pavilion of Realism – his fate was sealed. He was accepted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts later that year to study under Louis Lamothe, a former student of Ingres’.

This classical education would go on to be vital to his unique style, an intriguing blend of tradition and modernism that was no less influenced by another chance meeting – with a young artist named Edouard Manet. Together, along with Claude Monet and Camille Pisarro, they would go on to pioneer a movement that was soon to become known as Impressionism.

Despite being known as one of the founding Impressionists, Degas rejected this title entirely, preferring to be known either as a ‘Realist’ or an ‘Independent’. Indeed, his style shows a marked difference from his contemporaries that really sets him apart; where his fellow artists preferred to work on ‘en plein air’ landscapes, Degas preferred to study and capture vibrant scenes of city life in Paris. While he embraced the plays of light and fleeting moments of Impressionism, his was the artificial light of Parisian cafes, theatres, and restaurants – despite his love of depicting the ‘low life’ of Paris often causing him to be seen as controversial.

He became fascinated by the human body and began – famously – to paint ballerinas and dancers almost prolifically, nearly always depicting them in unusual positions and contortions that allowed him to study and capture the contour and movement of the body.

Art Trivia: Another painter inspired by the human form and movement is contemporary artist Neil B. Helyard. One of his ballerina pieces – Friends (pictured below) – can be purchased from Trinity House here.

And so, Degas’ unique style came to life. His signature juxtaposition of light and shadow, his recognisable use of off-centre composition and his distinctive perspective, all a result of his individual experiences, his classical education clashing with his Impressionist peers and his urge to stand out, which helped him to embrace and explore the quirky and unusual.

However, this need to be independent of his peers became a deep rooted part of Degas’ personality, and his oft dreamy pieces belied a man who was usually seen as unfriendly, withdrawn and controversial. He once said of himself, “The artist must live apart, and his private life remain unknown.” Despite this, he has gone on to be recognised as one of France’s most important artistic progenies, a founder of Impressionism, but a rare and singular artist in his own right. While his private life may remain unknown, his public works will be treasured for years to come.

Degas at Trinity House

We are particularly fortunate to currently be responsible for the sale of an original Degas ourselves, the Portrait de M. et Mme. Louis Rouart Circa 1904. A depiction of a close friend of Degas, Louis Rouart, whom he met whilst a lieutenant in the Franco-Prussian war, the painting is a fantastic example of Degas’ signature style. The informality of a fleeting moment between lovers favoured over a formal portrait, the off-centre composition with the cropping of Monsieur Rouart suggesting a world beyond the painting, the use of pastels in burnt umbers and emerald greens; all of these aspects are typical of Degas’ work, making this a fantastic piece for any fan looking to collect.

Did You Know…

  • Degas was originally born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, but modified his surname to sound less aristocratic.
  • While Degas’ father did encourage his love of art, he did not want him to become an artist. Degas had already completed a baccalaureate in Literature and was partway through an unsuccessful period at law school before he decided to go against his father’s wishes and study at the Ecole.
  • Degas travelled extensively during his lifetime and was influenced greatly by his travels, particularly during a three-year trip to Italy where he became interested in Renaissance artists that complemented his classical training.
  • Degas’ family was rather wealthy for the time and it was this upbringing and inheritance that allowed him to pursue his career as well as travel.
  • Like many of his contemporaries, Degas was heavily influenced by Japanese art after trade opened between France and Japan in 1834. Rather than using Eastern motifs however, Degas adopted the Japanese artists’ unusual use of perspective, cropping and composition that would go on to become his signature.
  • Degas created around 1,500 depictions of ballerinas including paintings, sketches and studies on their movements.
  • Degas loved to play with different mediums and techniques and worked with oil, pastel, sculpture and photography.
  • He began sculpting as a result of failing eyesight that may have been caused by an injury sustained during the war.
  • Degas worked almost right up to his death on September 27th, 1917 aged 83 years old.

If you’re a Degas fan and would like to know more about his work, you can browse our collection here; and please get in touch with our expert art advisers if there’s anything else we can help you with.