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Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas - Biography
Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas was born into a well-to-do banking family from the minor Italian aristocracy on the 19th of July 1834, in Paris. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Louis Lamothe, a disciple of Ingres, where he developed the marvellous drawing ability that was to be a salient characteristic of his art. In the 1850s Degas travelled to Italy, where the Renaissance masterpieces had a great impact on him. During his formative years Degas copied extensively works from a large range of artistic periods, but always returned to those Italian artists of the early Renaissance. In this he was following his father's belief that "the masters of the fifteenth century are the only true guides".

After 1865, under the influence of the budding Impressionist movement, he gave up academic subjects to turn to contemporary themes. Although he participated in nearly all the Impressionist exhibitions, he detested the label Impressionist, rarely socialised with them and frequently caused disunity within the group. Generally classed with the Impressionists, he preferred to be called a Realist, and his training in classical draughting and his dislike of painting directly from nature really produced a style that represented an alternative to Impressionism. He produced images that were the result of much labour in the studio instead of being spontaneously created out-of-doors, and in this way Degas continued a long and vigorous dialogue with the past.

Like Renoir, Degas practised portraiture and believed in the importance of the figure in art, but Degas concentrated on people at work instead of at play. Also like his associates, Degas believed in contemporary subject matter - turning for example, to racetracks and circuses for his images. But for more than forty years, his over-riding interests were the dance and opera, and his portrayals of dancers in oil or pastels - frequently capturing a sense of the arduous work that preceded each public performance - are often regarded as his best paintings.

Adopting the arbitrary cropping afforded by photography, (which he soon took up) and inspired by the old masters, Degas attempted to cultivate complete objectivity. In his portraits as well as in his studies of dancers, milliners, and laundresses, he attempted to catch his subjects in poses as natural and spontaneous as those recorded in action photographs.

In the 1880s as his eyesight began to fail, Degas began increasingly to work in two new media that did not require intense visual acuity: sculpture and pastel. In his sculpture, as in his paintings, he attempted to catch action on the wing, and his ballet dancers and female nudes are depicted in poses that make no attempt to conceal their subject's physical exertions. His pastels are usually simple compositions containing only a few figures. He was obliged to depend on vibrant colours and meaningful gestures rather than on precise lines and careful detailing, but in spite of such limitations, these works are eloquent and expressive and have a simple grandeur unsurpassed by any of his other works.

Always introverted and shy, as Degas aged he became increasingly bitter and isolated. Degas' naturally prickly character irritated many, and his reactionary views on religion and education for the masses isolated him further from many contemporaries. The notorious Dreyfus case of the 1890s brought out Degas' anti-Semitism, causing a break with Pissarro and other artists. In addition, Degas' remarkably frank and brutal pastels of brothel life, could be seen as an attempt to, at worst, humiliate women, at best to strip them of any romantic ideals of untouchable beauty. Whatever his view of women, it is known that he was very close to Mary Cassatt - both as her mentor and as her friend. When Degas died she wrote that she had lost her closest friend.

Degas died in Paris on the 27th of September, in 1917.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya


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