Today is the birthday (1834) of Edgar Degas, born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, a French artist who is now mostly remembered for his paintings of dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, although he rejected the term, preferring to be called a realist. I will begin by saying that Degas was, by contemporary accounts of him, a thoroughly unpleasant man. I’ll get into details in the body of the post. For now, I will content myself with saying that if I rejected posts on all famous creative people who led hideous personal lives, my writing would be a great deal slimmer.
Degas was born in Paris, France, into a moderately wealthy family. He was the oldest of five children of Célestine Musson De Gas, a Creole from New Orleans, Louisiana, and Augustin De Gas, a banker. His maternal grandfather Germain Musson, was born in Port-au-Prince in Haiti of French descent and had settled in New Orleans in 1810. Degas (he adopted this less grandiose spelling of his family name when he became an adult) began his schooling at age 11, enrolling in the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. His mother died when he was 13, and his father and grandfather became the main influences on him for the remainder of his youth.
Degas began to paint early in life. By the time he graduated from the Lycée with a baccalauréat in 1853, at age 18, he had turned a room in his home into an artist’s studio. Upon graduating, he registered as a copyist in The Louvre Museum, but his father expected him to go to law school. Degas duly enrolled at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris in November 1853, but put little effort to his studies. In 1855 he met Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whom Degas revered and whose advice he never forgot: “Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist.” In April of that year Degas was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts. He studied drawing there with Louis Lamothe, under whose guidance he flourished, following the style of Ingres. In July 1856, Degas traveled to Italy, where he remained for the next three years. In 1858, while staying with his aunt’s family in Naples, he made the first studies for his early masterpiece The Bellelli Family. He also drew and painted numerous copies of works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and other Renaissance artists, but—contrary to conventional practice—he usually selected from an altarpiece a detail that had caught his attention: a secondary figure, or a head which he treated as a portrait.
Upon his return to France in 1859, Degas moved into a Paris studio large enough to permit him to begin painting The Bellelli Family—an imposing canvas he intended for exhibition in the Salon, although it remained unfinished until 1867. He also began work on several history paintings: Alexander and Bucephalus and The Daughter of Jephthah in 1859–60; Sémiramis Building Babylon in 1860; and Young Spartans around 1860. In 1861 Degas visited his childhood friend Paul Valpinçon in Normandy, and made the earliest of his many studies of horses. He exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1865, when the jury accepted his painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages, which attracted little attention. Although he exhibited annually in the Salon during the next five years, he submitted no more history paintings, and his Steeplechase—The Fallen Jockey (Salon of 1866) signaled his growing commitment to contemporary subject matter. The change in his art was influenced primarily by the example of Édouard Manet, whom Degas had met in 1864 (while both were copying the same Velázquez portrait in the Louvre, according to a story that may be apocryphal).
Upon the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Degas enlisted in the National Guard, where his defense of Paris left him little time for painting. During rifle training his eyesight was found to be defective, and for the rest of his life his eye problems were a constant worry to him. After the war, Degas began (in 1872) an extended stay in New Orleans, Louisiana, where his brother René and a number of other relatives lived. Staying at the home of his Creole uncle, Michel Musson, on Esplanade Avenue, Degas produced a number of works, many depicting family members. One of Degas’s New Orleans works, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, garnered favorable attention back in France, and was his only work purchased by a museum (the Pau) during his lifetime.
Degas returned to Paris in 1873 and his father died the following year, whereupon Degas learned that his brother René had amassed enormous business debts. To preserve his family’s reputation, Degas sold his house and an art collection he had inherited, and used the money to pay off his brother’s debts. Dependent for the first time in his life on sales of his artwork for income, he produced much of his greatest work during the decade beginning in 1874. Disenchanted by now with the Salon, he instead joined a group of young artists who were organizing an independent exhibiting society. The group soon became known as the Impressionists. Between 1874 and 1886 they mounted eight art shows, known as the Impressionist Exhibitions. Degas took a leading role in organizing the exhibitions, and showed his work in all but one of them, despite his persistent conflicts with others in the group. He had little in common with Monet and the other landscape painters in the group, whom he mocked for painting outdoors. He abhorred the scandal created by the exhibitions, as well as the publicity and advertising that his colleagues sought. He also deeply disliked being associated with the term “Impressionist”, which the press had coined and popularized, and insisted on including non-Impressionist artists such as Jean-Louis Forain and Jean-François Raffaëlli in the group’s exhibitions. The resulting rancor within the group contributed to its disbanding in 1886.
Technically, Degas differs from the Impressionists in that he continually belittled their practice of painting “en plein air.” He wrote:
You know what I think of people who work out in the open. If I were the government I would have a special brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye on artists who paint landscapes from nature. Oh, I don’t mean to kill anyone; just a little dose of bird-shot now and then as a warning.
Mlle. Fiocre in the Ballet La Source, exhibited in the Salon of 1868, was his first major work to introduce dancers as a subject with which he would become especially identified. In many subsequent paintings dancers were shown backstage or in rehearsal, emphasizing their status as professionals doing a job. From 1870 Degas increasingly painted ballet subjects, partly because they sold well and provided him with needed income after his brother’s debts had left the family bankrupt.
As his financial situation improved through sales of his own work, he was able to indulge his passion for collecting works by artists he admired: old masters such as El Greco and contemporaries such as Manet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Édouard Brandon. Three artists he idolized, Ingres, Delacroix, and Daumier, were especially well represented in his collection. In the late 1880s, Degas also developed a passion for photography. He photographed many of his friends, often by lamplight, as in his double portrait of Renoir and Mallarmé.
Other photographs, depicting dancers and nudes, were used for reference in some of Degas’s drawings and paintings. He also photographed individuals and family groupings.
Over the years Degas became more and more isolated, due in part to his belief that a painter should have no personal life. He wrote, “the artist must live alone, and his private life must remain unknown.” In company he was known for his wit, which could often be cruel. He was characterized as an “old curmudgeon” by the novelist George Moore, and he deliberately cultivated his reputation as a misanthropic bachelor. His argumentative nature was deplored by Renoir, who said of him: “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay till the end.”
Degas was profoundly conservative in his political opinions. He opposed all social reforms and found little to admire in such technological advances as the telephone. He fired a model upon learning she was Protestant. Although Degas painted a number of Jewish subjects from 1865 to 1870, his anti-Semitism became apparent by the mid-1870s. His 1879 painting Portraits at the Stock Exchange is widely regarded as anti-Semitic, with the facial features of the banker taken directly from the anti-Semitic cartoons rampant in Paris at the time. The Dreyfus Affair, which divided Paris from the 1890s to the early 1900s, further intensified his anti-Semitism. By the mid-1890s, he had broken off relations with all of his Jewish friends, publicly disavowed his previous friendships with Jewish artists, and refused to use models who he believed might be Jewish. He remained an outspoken anti-Semite and member of the anti-Semitic “Anti-Dreyfusards” until his death.
Although he is known to have been working in pastel as late as the end of 1907, and is believed to have continued making sculptures as late as 1910, he apparently ceased working in 1912, when the impending demolition of his longtime residence on the rue Victor Massé forced him to move to quarters on Boulevard de Clichy. He never married and spent the last years of his life, nearly blind, restlessly wandering the streets of Paris before dying in September 1917. He was buried in the family vault in Montmartre cemetery.
Degas’s only showing of sculpture during his life took place in 1881 when he exhibited The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. A nearly life-size wax figure with real hair and dressed in a cloth tutu, it provoked a strong reaction from critics, most of whom found its realism extraordinary but denounced the dancer as ugly. In a review, J.-K. Huysmans wrote: “The terrible reality of this statuette evidently produces uneasiness in the spectators; all their notions about sculpture, about those cold inanimate whitenesses … are here overturned. The fact is that with his first attempt Monsieur Degas has revolutionized the traditions of sculpture as he has long since shaken the conventions of painting.”
Degas created a substantial number of other sculptures during a span of four decades, but they remained unseen by the public until a posthumous exhibition in 1918. Neither The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years nor any of Degas’s other sculptures were cast in bronze during his lifetime. Degas scholars have agreed that the sculptures were not created as aids to painting, although the artist habitually explored ways of linking graphic art and oil painting, drawing and pastel, sculpture and photography. Degas assigned the same significance to sculpture as to drawing: “Drawing is a way of thinking, modelling another”.
After Degas’s death, his heirs found 150 wax sculptures in his studio, many in disrepair. They consulted foundry owner Adrien Hébrard, who concluded that 74 of the waxes could be cast in bronze. It is assumed that, except for the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, all Degas bronzes worldwide are cast from surmoulages (i.e., cast from bronze masters). A surmoulage bronze is a bit smaller, and shows less surface detail, than its original bronze mold. The Hébrard Foundry cast the bronzes from 1919 until 1936, and closed down in 1937, shortly before Hébrard’s death.
Parisian café food in general would work to celebrate the life of Degas because he is known to have frequented both cheap and expensive cafés in Paris, although what he ate is not recorded. One of my favorites is steak tartare, so I will maunder on about that delicacy for a bit. First a STERN WARNING. Classic steak tartare uses raw beef and raw egg, both of which can be vectors for crippling, even lethal, diseases. You must be fully confident in your sources before eating either, and I cannot recommend them publicly. Chefs in France use hand chopped beef, not ground, so that they are sure that the meat does not pick up contaminants from the meat grinder. They also have to be scrupulous about the sources of both their beef and eggs.
I have eaten steak tartare in numerous restaurants in France (and elsewhere), and have made it myself. It is one of my favorite dishes. I had it first at a cast party in Australia for a play I was in at age 11, and have enjoyed it ever since. The two photos below give you the basic idea.
You will be served with the hand cut beef on a platter with a raw egg yolk on top, and in addition will be given a choice of things to add. Standard are chopped cornichons, chopped green onion, and capers, plus sauces of one sort or another, as well as salt and pepper. You might also get freshly chopped onions or shallots, anchovies, lemon, and Dijon mustard. Your job is to mix in what you prefer, stir it all together really well, and then heap the mixture on toasted bread slices. Yum. It is remarkably filling.