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Edgar Degas
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One of the 19th century’s greatest painters, draftsmen and printmakers and an innovative sculptor and photographer, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas depicted modern life in his art and influenced a generation of artists. He was born in Paris in 1834 to an international family; his father was a banker from Naples and his mother was from New Orleans. His formal artistic education was limited to a year’s study in the studio of Louis Lamothe (1822-1869) and a semester at the École des Beaux-Arts. Degas embarked on a three-year visit with his father’s family in Italy beginning in 1856, during which he painted, etched andstudied Italian masters. The trip led to his portrait of his aunt’s family, The Bellelli Family (1858-1867, Paris: Musée d’Orsay), his first great painting. Degas returned to Paris in April 1859, where he became friends with many of the young avant-garde artists of the time. His submissions to the official Salons in the 1860s received scant attention. Although he sold few works, he lived comfortably on income from the family bank. Degas began creating wax sculptures in the late 1860s, first of horses and later dancers, nude bathers and other figures. These were mostly made of wax, with cork or wire armatures. Degas later explained that he made the sculptures to guide his creation of paintings and drawings, not for sale. As his style evolved, he used surprising poses and unusual viewing angles, reflecting the influence of the Japanese prints that he collected. Musicians in the Orchestra (Portrait of Désiré Dihau) (ca. 1870, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) is a good example. During this decade he began complaining about the vision problems that would plague him for the rest of his life. Degas traveled to New Orleans in 1872 to visit his two younger brothers and his mother’s family, and while there created his masterful Portraits dans un bureau (Nouvelle-Orléans) (1873, Portraits in an Office (New Orleans), Pau: Musée des Beaux-Arts), also known as A Cotton Office in New Orleans. After he returned to Paris, Degas and several friends, including Claude Monet (1840-1926), Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Camille Pissarro (1841-1895) organized the the first “Impressionist” exhibition, held in 1874; it was not a financial or critical success. The collapse of the family bank after his father’s death that year forced Degas to rely on income from sales of his works of art. He created readily-saleable small-scale works in pastel, gouache and distemper, media that allowed him to work more rapidly. His subject matter included dancers, theater scenes, café-concerts, brothel scenes and nudes, along with portraits of friends. Degas showed twenty-four works in the 1876 Impressionist Exhibition and twenty-five other works in the 1877 exhibition. By then Degas had met Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), who became a close friend; he invited her to show her works with the Impressionists rather than at the Salon, which she did in 1879. Degas continued to pursue etching in the late 1870s, and in 1879 recruited his friends Cassatt, Pissarro and others to create etchings for journal to be called Le Jour et la Nuit. Although the journal was never published, Degas created a number of etchings apparently for the project, including the two well-known portraits of Cassatt and her sister in the Musée du Louvre. Degas exhibited in the subsequent Impressionist exhibitions (other than in 1882). He created a sensation at the 1881 exhibition with his wax sculpture Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (1878-1881, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, Washington, D.C., Natinal Gallery of Art), dressed in a fabric bodice, tutu, ballet shoes and a human-hair wig. By the mid-1880s Degas become financially successful and paid off the debts of the collapsed family bank. Degas remained interested in Japanese art, visiting the 1890 exhibition of Japanese ukiyo-e (floating world) woodcut prints and illustrated books several times, often with Cassatt. Degas took up photography in 1894, creating landscape photographs and carefully structured portraits of friends, with particular attention paid to the lighting. Only forty-four surviving vintage negatives and plates attributed to Degas survive. By the end of the 1890s Degas’s works had entered major public and private collections in Europe and the United States. Although his eyesight and general health deteriorated during the 20th century, he continued to work until 1912, primarily in pastel, such as Femme s’essuyant (Seated Bather Drying Her Neck, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Lemoisne 1172). After his death in 1917 his apartment and studio were found to be filled with his own art and his extensive collection of works by other artists; almost 8,000 items were sold in eight sales over two years. (TNB 6/2011) Selected bibliography: Boggs, Jean Sutherland, et al. Degas. Exhibition catalog. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada; Paris: Grand Palais, 1988. Kendall, Richard. Degas: Beyond Impressionism. Exhibition catalog. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1996.