Degas described himself as being “the classical painter of modern life”. In this way he sets himself apart from Impressionists although he was closely showed at their exhibitions. However, unlike his Impressionists friends he refused to paint out doors, and paid a lot of attention to composition and drawings, which Impressionists tended to underestimate. Nevertheless the name of Degas is firmly associated with Impressionism. He participated in seven out of eight Impressionists exhibitions (he did not exhibited anything at the seventh) and has been in close relationship with whole group.
The son of a distinguish banker, he was born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas in Paris in July 1834. He displayed remarkable ability as a draughtsman at an early age and was copying at the Louvre before he was twenty. His training was classical and traditional. In 1854 he becomes a pupil of the painter Lamothe, a disciple of Ingres; the next year he started at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He also is visiting Italy twice in 1856 and 1858. In this early period he confined himself to portraits and historical paintings, following the usual tradition, but even then he showed great originality in boldness of his composition and his feeling for rhythm and balance. Among the best work of this period are Portrait of the Bellelli Family (1860-1862), several self portraits, and paintings of his family, particularly Mme Edouard Morbilli, while among his historical paintings are Yong Spartan girls inciting the boys to fight (1860), Semiramis building the hanging gardens of Babylon (1861 Salon) and The plight of the city of Orleans (1865 Salon).
About 1865 or 1866, Degas , made the acquaintance of Edouard Manet and the Impressionists who invited him to their gathering at the Café Guerbois. From that time onwards Degas decided to be “the classical painter of modern life”, and gave up his historical painting, without however giving up his classical approach. His modern approach can be seen in the influence of photography and Japanese prints. Right up to the end of his life he continued to paint off-centre compositions with extra-ordinarily bold effects, both on canvas and on paper. During this transition period (c. 1865-1877) with its continued research and experiments, Degas produced the following: Woman with chrysanthemums (1865), Mademoiselle Fiocre in the ballet La Source (1868), Portrait of Madame Camus (1870), The Cotton Merchants’ Office, New Orleans (1873), Sulks (c. 1874), Madame Fevre or the singing rehearsal (c. 1873), The Absinthe Drinkers (1876), The Café des Ambassadeurs (1876-1877), Women in a café, evening (pastel, 1877)and Singer with a glove (1878).
From about 1874, Degas started to paint series of pictures limited to five in each series. Because their scope was so restricted, he felt this allowed for almost unlimited interpretation. Degas hoped in this way to be able to concentrate on actual form, and show how infinitive variations could be constructed out of one single theme. He used to think of his series as a continually renewed succession of forms in which all possibilities could explored without limits of bounds, and where he could discover new rhythms and curves and impression, felt as well as seen. Apart from a few portraits and several scenes of café and theatre life and prostitutes, Degas painted five complete series: The Races; Laundresses or Washerwomen; Milliners, and the two best known of all, Dancers and Women at their toilet.
Degas’ reputation depends largely on his Dancers series, a varied and important set of works, which again show his classical taste. In the series he achieved an amazing expression of rhythm and harmony, a balance on a canvas between motion and sculptural quality.
From then onwards, and particularly towards the end of Degas’ life, colours became as important to him as line. Degas’ eyesight deteriorated progressively until in the end ha was almost blind, and this partly explains his preference for pastel, which allowed to him to use heavier and thicker strokes and hatching for rendering forms and light and shade. The most outstanding works of this series are following: Ballet rehearsal room at the Opera, rue Le Peletier (1872), Ballet rehearsal on the stage (1874), End of an arabesque (pastel, 1877), Dancer with a bouquet taking a curtain call (pastel, 1878), Dancers at the bar.
The last series of all is of Women at their toilet. They still impress with natural simplicity of poses, expression of emotions and receptivity of a whole world of feminine life. The best of them are: Women combing their hair (c. 1876), La Toilette (1885), The tub (1886), After the bath; woman wiping her feet (1886), Woman doing her hair (1887-1890), After the bath; woman wiping her neck (1898).
Based on Phaidon encyclopedia of Impressionism, Maurice Serullaz, Phaidon, 1978