JULY 19, ON THIS DAY
A prominent painter, sculptor and printmaker, Edgar Degas was born on this day, 19 July 1834. He was a prominent figure in the Impressionist group and like the other Impressionists, he sought to capture fleeting moments in the flow of modern life, but unlike most of them, showed little interest in outdoor paintings. He’s mostly identified with the subject of dance, since more than half of his works depict dancers. In addition to dancers, he painted bathing women, racehorses, racing jockeys, and portraits as well. Degas’s interest in photography also had an effect on his approach to composition.
Born in Paris to a wealthy banking family, Degas got his art education from École des Beaux-Arts and studied there under the academic painter Louis Lamothe. He started out by copying Italian Renaissance paintings at the Louvre, and was very much influenced by the paintings and frescoes he saw during several trips to Italy and made sketches and drawing of them in his notebooks.
Degas’s principal subject was the human, especially the female, figure. Ballet dancers and women at their toilette would preoccupy him throughout his career. He experimented with a wide variety of media, including oil, pastels, gouache, etching, lithography, wax modelling and photography. After drawing numerous copies of works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and other Renaissance artists, he started painting large portraits of family members as well as grandiose, historically inspired canvases such as ‘The Daughter of Jephthah’ (1859-60) and ‘Sémiramis Building Babylon’ (1861). His early masterpiece ‘The Bellelli Family’ was created over the course of several trips to Italy, spanning 3-4 years and each family member was sketched individually and then organized into a family portrait.
In the latter part of his career, he moved on to sculptures, but the only sculpture exhibited during his life was ‘The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years’ (1880). A substantial number of Degas’s sculptures was seen by the public only after his death, at an exhibition in 1918.
Edgar Degas spent the last years of his life in Paris and died on 27 September, 1917. Once labelled as a “painter of dancers” he is now counted among the most influential and innovative figures of his generation.