Edgar Degas: The Painter of Dancers

The French artist Edgar Degas is also known as “The painter of dancers.” Was he really an impressionist? Read along to know more about Edgar Degas.

Nov 28, 2020By Marie-Madeleine Renauld, MA & BA Art History and Archaeology
edgar degas
Examen de danse by Edgar Degas, 1874, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; with  Ballet (L’Etoile) by Edgar Degas, ca. 1876, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Also known as the “painter of dancers,” Edgar Degas always was hard to categorize. Despite being a founder of Impressionism, the painter had a unique style. Critiques considered him an avant-garde artist; the public mostly admired his work during his lifetime. Edgar Degas produced realistic illustrations of Paris at the end of the 19th century. He shed light on the harsh living conditions of the working-class and the unpredictability of human relationships.


Young Edgar Degas Studied The Classical Masters

Self-Portrait by Edgar Degas, ca. 1855-56, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Hilaire Germain Edgar de Gas, best known as Edgar Degas, was born in Paris in 1834 in a wealthy aristocratic family. His grand-father, René-Hilaire de Gas, emigrated in 1793 to the former Kingdom of Naples, today part of Italy. He founded a bank there. Auguste, Edgar Degas’ father, worked in banking too. Célestine Musson, Edgar’s mother, came from a Creole family living in New Orleans, Louisiana.


Unlike other impressionist painters, Degas never struggled with his finances, and his father encouraged his artistic passion. Auguste Degas had a keen interest in art. He helped his son by setting up a studio in the family house and introducing him to valuable acquaintances. Auguste also wrote several encouragement letters to Edgar.


In 1853, Edgar began his apprenticeship first in Louis-Ernest Barrias’ studio, then with Louis Lamothe.  The latter worshiped Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and passed his admiration of the artist on to Degas. Edgar spent several years in Italy: First in Naples, where he met his grandfather and cousins. Then in Rome and Florence to study the masters – especially Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael.


Degas Depicting Human Psychology And Movement

The Bellelli Family by Edgar Degas, 1858-60, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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During the 1850s, Edgar Degas started painting portraits, including family members like his grandfather. He showed real talent in depicting characters and was a keen observant of human psychology.


In the 1860 “Bellelli Family” portrait, Degas painted his aunt and her husband, with their two daughters. Degas’ aunt, Laure, mourning her father’s death, Edgar’s grandfather, stands proud next to her daughters. Her husband sitting on the side looks absent. Everyone looks in a different direction, shutting themselves in their solitude. The tension in the family is evident. This innovative painting is one of Degas’ early portraits. He continued exploring new ways of depicting the volatility of human relationships in his later work.


At the Races in the Countryside by Edgar Degas, 1869, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


In 1859, Degas had the opportunity to find another source of inspiration. The Valpinçon family invited him to spend a few weeks at their property in Orne, west of Paris. The painter discovered the beauty of moving horses, making them an excellent subject. He studied the moves of the animals in Valpinçon’s horse farm. Between 1860 and 1870, Degas painted many equestrian subjects, including horse races and jockeys. The illustration of movement became another of Degas’ leitmotiv.


Edgar Degas, Also Known As “The Painter Of Dancers”

Le Foyer de la Danse à l’Opéra de la rue Le Peletier by Edgar Degas, 1872, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Contrary to several painters of his time, Edgar Degas never suffered from lacking finances allowing him complete freedom of choice on the subjects to paint. Edgar never worked on demand and only painted what inspired him. He repeated the same subjects over and over, perfecting his technique.


Around 1867-68, Degas painted his first ballet related work. This initial painting represented Miss Fiocre, a ballerina. He became more fascinated by theater and performing arts and painted several portraits of musicians such as “The Orchestra at the Opera.”


The Orchestra at the Opera by Edgar Degas, ca. 1870, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Later, Degas concentrated on on-stage and mainly backstage ballet scenes. In 1872, he painted “Le foyer de la danse à l’Opéra de la rue Peletier,” the dance hall at the Opera Le Peletier street.  It displays ballerinas practicing in the dance hall of the opera. Degas used to settle in ballet classes of the opera in Le Peletier street to observe the ballerinas’ rehearsals. He also witnessed the life of a Parisian theater, where wealthy members of the public used to meet young and poor dancers. Degas portrayed ballerinas as simple women, often exhausted by dancing practices. His realistic representations stand in striking contrast with the perfect image they showed on stage.


With an impressive 1,500 art pieces depicting ballerinas, this was undoubtedly his preferred subject. Degas said to his friend Ambroise Vollard: “They call me the painter of dancers, but they do not understand that the ballerina was for me a pretext to paint pretty fabrics and depict movements.” This quote outlines Degas’ artistic quest.


Connections In The Work Of Edgar Degas And Emile Zola

L’Absinthe (Dans un Café) by Edgar Degas, ca. 1875-76, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Another subject striking Edgar Degas’ fancy was the washerwomen and women ironing in Paris. It is quite curious for a man of his position to have noticed them. Like Emile Zola, one of Degas’ acquaintances, did in his writings, Degas used them to depict ordinary Parisian life. He had an interest in showing every-day working-class life at the end of the 19th century. Degas’ paintings reflected their life of labor and the everyday-difficulties they encountered.


Both also raised the subject of alcoholism. In “L’Absinthe,” The Absinthe Drinker painting (1875-76), also called “Dans un café,” Degas portrayed a glassy-eyed woman, seated at a café table with a glass of absinthe. Even the painting’s innovative and biased framing seems to destabilize the scene, just like the excess of alcohol would.


A few years later, in 1877, Zola wrote about the same topic in his novel L’Assommoir. This masterpiece, reporting alcoholism and social difficulties in 19th-century Paris, made him famous. A few years later, Zola even admitted that Degas’ paintings inspired him for his novel. He said: “I have simply described, on more than one occasion, several of your paintings.”


He Began To Lose His Sight

Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas by Edgar Degas, 1872, via New Orleans Museum of Art


In 1870, Edgar Degas enrolled in the army while the Franco-Prussian war began. A dramatic event happened for the painter as he learned that he was progressively losing his sight. At first, Edgar thought that his problems were due to the military campaign. However, he realized that the sunlight continued bothering him after his time in the army. He started painting more indoors and no more outdoor scenes, though a favorite subject for impressionists.


Degas left for a trip to New Orleans in 1872. He visited his mother’s parents, cotton traders, and other family members. Estelle Musson Balfour de Gas, his cousin, suffered from the same affliction and became blind by thirty. Edgar developed a strong friendship with Estelle, as she perfectly understood what he was going through. During the months spent in New-Orleans, Degas drew a lot of sketches but avoided being outdoors. He painted several portraits of his dear cousin Estelle.


Trois Danseuses (Jupes bleues, corsages rouges) by Edgar Degas, ca. 1903, Beyeler Foundation Basel


His condition worsened during the 1880s. Degas suffered a severe central vision loss, and only his peripheral vision stayed clear. On top of that, his vision of colors faded. It explains why Degas used sharper colors in his late work. He used specific glasses to help him see better, but they did not help a lot. Yet, Degas never stopped painting and went on as his sight permitted him. He also started to use other mediums more often, such as pastel colors.


In 1911, a few years before his death, Degas completely lost his sight and was forced to stop his production.


Degas’ Sculptures Almost Disappeared

The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer by Edgar Degas, cast 1922, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Along with painting, Edgar Degas created at least 150 wax or clay sculptures. Yet the public discovered most of them only after he died in 1917.


The only exception is “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans,” The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer sculpture. Degas presented this wax sculpture in Paris at the sixth Impressionists exhibition in 1881. The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer portrays a young ballerina, dressed in a fabric tutu, wearing dance shoes, and with real hair and satin ribbons on her head. His model was Marie van Goethem, a young Belgian girl living in a poor district of Paris and working at the opera. Following Degas’ request, the little dancer was presented to the public in a glass cage. The near-anthropological presentation of the sculpture shows how the artist wanted to represent society objectively. With its realistic features and innovative use of materials, the sculpture elicited strong reactions from the public. Some acknowledged Degas’ genius, while others expressed their outrage describing a feral young girl.


Young Spartans Exercising by Edgar Degas, ca. 1860, via The National Gallery, London


Wax and clay are fragile materials. When they were found in his studio in 1917, some sculptures remained in a poor conservation state. Degas’ sculptures have risked disappearing forever. Fortunately, Degas’ heirs and Albert Bartholomé, Edgar’s friend and sculptor,  planned to cast 72 wax and clay sculptures in bronze. Albino Palazzolo, one of the employees at Hébrard foundry in Paris, had the complex task of creating molds from the sculptures without damaging them. The foundry edited a small series of the 72 sculptures. The original wax sculptures disappeared for decades, thought to be lost. They reappeared in 1955 when Palazzolo revealed that Hébrard, the foundry’s director, had kept the originals. Several museums around the world exhibit today these Edgar Degas’ original wax sculptures.


Edgar Degas, An Impressionist?

The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage by Edgar Degas, ca. 1874, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Despite being a founding member of Impressionism, Edgar Degas distinguished himself from other impressionists. Impressionist artists believed in the importance of outdoor painting. Artists such as Claude Monet took inspiration from moving lights and the ever-evolving nature. On the other hand, Degas mostly worked indoors at the light of oil lamps, even before experiencing issues with his sight. He trusted his memory more than the fleeting perceived impressions of a moment. As color primed on drawing for the impressionists, Degas worked differently. He always drew strong lines and focused on shapes and movements.


Just like Edouard Manet, Degas was more a portrayer than a painter of landscapes. The innovation lay in modern compositions and the illustration of the characters’ psychology.


Edgar Degas, “The painter of dancers,” is still hard to categorize today. Though a key player of the Impressionist movement, Degas followed his artistic path and left thousands of works considered masterpieces in modern art history.

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By Marie-Madeleine RenauldMA & BA Art History and ArchaeologyMarie-Madeleine is a contributing writer and antique furniture restorer. She holds an MA and BA in Art History and Archaeology from the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium. She also followed training in antique furniture restoration. In her free time, she enjoys creative activities, and hiking through the Swiss mountains where she now lives.