French Impressionist French painter and draftsman
Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas was born in Paris on July 19, 1834, the son of a wealthy banker. Although Degas prepared for the law, he abandoned it for painting, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts until 1854 with Louis Lamothe, a student of Ingres. Indeed, his early works, family portraits and history paintings, suggest that he might have developed into an academic painter in the Ingres tradition. Degas also travelled in Italy where he copied 15th- and 16th-century masters. By the late 1860s, however, Degas had begun to develop a deceptively casual composition, probably influenced by Manet and possibly also by Whistler, and certainly by photography. He was precociously gifted as a draftsman and a brilliantly subtle and penetrating portraitist. He exhibited for six years in the Salon (1865-1870), but then ceased showing there and, beginning in 1874, exhibited in all but one of the exhibitions of the Impressionists, whose works he admired, although his approach often differed from theirs. In 1872, he visited relations in New Orleans and there probably began work on the Dumbarton Oaks Song Rehearsal. This painting and those that he executed after his return to Paris show him using unusual viewpoints and purely contemporary subject matter. He made notes and sketches from living models in motion to preserve informality of action and position. From these he organized his finished work in the studio, not directly from nature as his contemporaries did. Moreover, he created many daring compositional innovations. Influenced by Japanese prints and especially by photography, Degas diverged from the traditional ideas of balanced arrangements. He introduced what appeared to be accidental cutoff views, off-center subjects, and unusual angles, all quite carefully planned. Sometimes he effected a remarkable balance by giving special weight to the focus of interest. Technically, he was a great experimenter and innovator. He made endless trials of various media and mixtures such as oil paint thinned with turpentine after the oil has been partly extracted with blotting paper (essence). He became guarded and withdrawn late in life, but retained friendships with literary people. He died in Paris on September 27, 1917.