Edgar Degas: His Life and Work

Edgar Degas Self-Portrait
Edgar Degas Self-Portrait. Corbis Historical

Edgar Degas was one of the most important artists and painters of the 19th century, and an important figure in the Impressionist Movement despite the fact that he rejected the label. Contentious and argumentative, Degas was a difficult man to like personally and believed strongly that artists could not—and should not—have personal relationships in order to preserve their objective view of their subjects. Famous for his paintings of dancers, Degas worked in a variety of modes and materials, including sculpture, and remains one of the most influential painters of recent history.

Early Years

Born in Paris in 1834, Degas enjoyed a moderately wealthy lifestyle. His family had connections to the creole culture of New Orleans and Haiti, where his maternal grandfather was born, and styled their family name as “De Gas,” an affectation Degas rejected when he became an adult. He attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand (a prestigious secondary school established in the 16th century) in 1845; upon graduating he intended to study art, but his father expected him to become a lawyer, so Degas dutifully enrolled in the University of Paris in 1853 to study law.

To say Degas was not a good student would be an understatement, and a few years later he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts and began studying art and draftsmanship in earnest, quickly displaying hints of his incredible talent. Degas was a natural draftsman, able to render accurate but artistic drawings of multiple subjects with simple implements, a skill that would serve him well as he matured into his own style—especially with his work depicting dancers, café patrons, and other people seemingly caught unawares in their daily lives.

In 1856 Degas traveled to Italy, where he lived for the next three years. In Italy he developed a confidence in his painting; importantly, it was in Italy that he began work on his first masterpiece, a painting of his aunt and her family.

The Bellelli Family and History Painting

Portrait of the Bellelli Family by Edgar Degas
Portrait of the Bellelli Family by Edgar Degas. Corbis Historical

Degas initially saw himself as a ‛history painter,’ an artist who depicted scenes from history in a dramatic but traditional manner, and his initial studies and training reflected these classic techniques and subjects. However, during his time in Italy, Degas began to pursue realism, an attempt to depict real life as it was, and his portrait of The Bellelli Family is a remarkably accomplished and complex early work that marked Degas as a young master.

The portrait was innovative without being disruptive. At first glance it appears to be a conventional portrait in a more or less conventional style, but several aspects of the painting’s composition demonstrate the deep thought and subtlety Degas brought to it. The fact that the patriarch of the family, his uncle-in-law, is seated with his back to the viewer while his wife stands confidently far away from him is unusual for a family portrait of the time, while implying much about their relationship and the husband’s status in the household. Likewise, the position and posture of the two daughters—one more serious and adult, one a more playful "link" between her two distant parents—says much about their relationship to each other and their parents.

Degas attained the complex psychology of the painting in part by sketching each person separately, then compositing them into a pose they never actually assembled for. The painting, begun in 1858, was not completed until 1867.

War and New Orleans

A Cotton Office in New Orleans by Edgar Degas
A Cotton Office in New Orleans by Edgar Degas. Hulton Fine Art Collection

In 1870, war broke out between France and Prussia, and Degas enlisted in the French National Guard, service which interrupted his painting. He was also informed by army doctors that his eyesight was poor, something which worried Degas for the rest of his life.

After the war, Degas moved to New Orleans for a time. While living there he painted one of his most famous works, A Cotton Office in New Orleans. Once again, Degas sketched people (including his brother, shown reading a newspaper, and his father-in-law, in the forefront) individually and then composed the painting as he saw fit. His dedication to realism produces a “snapshot” effect despite the care that went into planning the painting, and despite the chaotic, almost random moment depicted (an approach that closely linked Degas to the burgeoning Impressionistic movement) he manages to link everything together via color: The swath of white in the middle of the image draws the eye from left to right, uniting all the figures in the space.

The Inspiration of Debt

The Dancing Class by Edgar Degas
The Dancing Class by Edgar Degas. Corbis Historical

Degas’ father passed away in 1874; his death revealed that Degas’ brother had amassed huge debt. Degas sold his personal art collection to satisfy the debts, and embarked on a more business-oriented period, painting subjects he knew would sell. Despite the economic motivations, Degas created most of his most famous works during this period, most notably his many paintings depicting ballerinas (though this was a subject he’d worked on previously, the dancers were popular and sold well for him).

One example is The Dance Class, finished in 1876 (sometimes also called The Ballet Class). Degas’ dedication to realism and the impressionistic virtue of capturing the moment is underscored by his typical decision to depict a rehearsal instead of a performance; he liked to show dancers as workers plying a profession as opposed to ethereal figures moving gracefully through space. His mastery of draftsmanship allowed him to imply movement effortlessly—the dancers stretch and slump with exhaustion, the teacher can almost be seen to pound his baton on the floor, counting the rhythm.

Impressionist or Realist?

Dancers by Edgar Degas
Dancers by Edgar Degas. Corbis Historical

Degas is usually credited as one of the founders of the impressionistic movement, which eschewed the formality of the past and pursued a goal of capturing a moment in time just as the artist perceived it. This emphasized capturing light in its natural state as well as human figures in relaxed, casual stances—not posed, but observed. Degas himself rejected this label, and considered his work to be “realist” instead. Degas objected to the supposedly “spontaneous” nature of impressionism that sought to capture moments that struck the artist in real-time, complaining that “no art was ever less spontaneous than mine.”

Despite his protestations, realism was part of the impressionist goal, and his influence was profound. His decision to depict people as if they were unaware of being painted, his choice of backstage and other usually private settings, and his unusual and often unsettling angles captured details that in the past would have been ignored or transformed—the floorboards in the dance class, sprayed with water to improve traction, the expression of mild interest on his father-in-law’s face in the cotton office, the way one Bellelli daughter seems almost insolent as she refuses to pose with her family.

The Art of Movement

'The Little Dancer' by Edgar Degas
'The Little Dancer' by Edgar Degas. Getty Images Entertainment

Degas is also celebrated for his skill in depicting movement in a painting. This is one reason his paintings of dancers are so popular and prized—and also why he was a celebrated sculptor as well as a painter. His famous sculpture, The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, was controversial in its time for both the extreme realism he employed in capturing ballet student Marie van Goethem’s form and features, as well as its composition—wax over a skeleton made of paintbrushes, including real clothes. The statue also conveys a nervous posture, a combination of awkward teen fidgeting and implied motion that echoes the dancers in his paintings. The sculpture was later cast in bronze.

Death and Legacy

The Absinthe Drinker by Edgar Degas
The Absinthe Drinker by Edgar Degas. Corbis Historical

Degas had anti-semitic leanings throughout his life, but the Dreyfus Affair, which involved the false conviction of a French army officer of Jewish descent for treason, brought those leanings to the fore. Degas was a difficult man to like and had a reputation for rudeness and cruelty that saw him shed friends and acquaintances throughout his life. As his eyesight failed, Degas stopped working 1912 and spent the last few years of his life alone in Paris.

Degas’ artistic evolution over the course of his lifetime was startling. Comparing The Bellelli Family to later works, one can clearly see how he moved away from formality into realism, from carefully structuring his compositions to capturing moments. His classical skills combined with his modern sensibility makes him profoundly influential today.

Edgar Degas Fast Facts

Dance foyer at opera on Rue Le Peletier by Edgar Degas
Dance foyer at opera on Rue Le Peletier by Edgar Degas. De Agostini Picture Library
  • Born: 1834, Paris, France
  • Died: 1917, Paris, France (Age 83)
  • Lineage: French Creole, French
  • Major Works: The Bellelli FamilyA Cotton Office in New OrleansFoyer de la DanseLittle DancerThe Ballet Class
  • Artistic Movement: Impressionism
  • Legacy: Considered one of the founding artists of the impressionistic movement, a master of subtle composition and of capturing movement.

Famous Quotes

  • “Your pictures would have been finished a long time ago if I were not forced every day to do something to earn money.”
  • “No art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing.”
  • “It is all well and good to copy what one sees, but it is much better to draw only what remains in one’s memory. This is a transformation in which imagination and memory collaborate.”
  • “What a delightful thing is the conversation of specialists! One understands absolutely nothing and it's charming.”


A Difficult Man

Edgar Degas was by all accounts a difficult man to like, but his genius at capturing movement and light has made his work immortal.