Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917) presented scenes of contemporary life, especially dancers, entertainers and women at their bath. His technique is superb and he experimented with various media. Degas, gone for more than a century, remains as popular as ever.
Degas had inherited wealth which allowed him to follow an independent path and that meant that he was not forced to attract buyers. He spent most of his life in Paris.
Degas was a peculiar, reclusive man, though it is said that he was a brilliant conversationalist and wit. He practiced the new art of photography, which affected his approach to composition. He was a sculptor as well as a painter, especially in his later years when deteriorating sight troubled him and he was forced to work in the studio close to the model.
Degas, never married, and was never really connected to a woman romantically, and he deliberately cultivated his reputation as a misanthropic bachelor. He wrote:
“…the artist must live alone, and his private life must remain unknown.”
He did have a lasting if fraught friendship with painter Mary Cassatt. They shared similar tastes in art and literature, came from affluent backgrounds, had studied painting in Italy, and both were independent, with little interest in romance. Degas was open in his views on politics and society. So was Cassatt. They worked together, but often clashed. A 1915 joint exhibition of Cassatt and Degas’ work was held to raise money for women’s suffrage but was marred by Degas’ misogynist comments.
He was quite the bigot. Degas fired a model upon learning she was Protestant. He was notoriously, outspokenly anti-Semitic. His 1879 painting Portraits at the Stock Exchange is regarded as particularly anti-Semitic, with the facial features of the banker taken directly from the anti-Semitic cartoons popular in Paris at the time.
The Dreyfus Affair was a political scandal that divided France from 1894 until its resolution in 1906. “L’Affaire”, as it is known in French, remains one of the most notable examples of a complex miscarriage of justice and antisemitism. The role of the press and public opinion proved influential to L’Affaire.
The scandal began in 1894 when a 35-year-old French Jewish artillery officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was convicted of treason. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris.
During The Dreyfus Affair, Degas broke 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 until his death.
Remembered today as an Impressionist, Degas was a member of a small group of Paris artists who began to exhibit together in the 1870s. He was intrigued by the challenge of capturing effects of light and attracted to scenes of urban leisure. Degas’ move toward Realism, set him apart from his peers, and he rejected the label ‘Impressionist’ preferring to describe himself as an ‘Independent’.
He was intrigued by the human figure, and in his many images of women – dancers, singers, and laundresses – he strove to capture the body in unusual positions. Degas’s lower-class subjects brought him much disapproval.
He also painted interesting male subjects. The 1856 unfinished picture below is from Degas’s early years as an art student in Paris. Instead of using a fresh canvas, he painted this nude male on top of another figure study, which can be seen underneath.
Degas is known mostly for his paintings of young ballet dancers. But I especially love this lesser known painting done while he was in New Orleans. He traveled to the city in 1872 to see the American side of his family, who worked as cotton and textile merchants. During his six-month stay, he produced 18 paintings there.
Here are other male subjects by Degas:
All pictures via Wikimedia Commons