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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Degas-An Analysis-The Artist and Impressionism

Degas was born on July 19, 1834 in Paris. The Degas family were middle class, his father , a banker, his mother from a family of American cotton traders.


Degas showed an early interest and ability in drawing and painting and was encouraged by his father to develop his talent. After leaving school he began copying in the Louvre works by Raphael, Ingres and Delacroix.

In 1855 he was admitted to the Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris. Degas however stayed only one year at the Beaux Arts before leaving to to travel and study in Italy. He spent three years in Italy and is known to have produced copies of works by Michelangelo and da Vinci among others.

Returning to Paris in 1859 Degas began to produce paintings of group family portraits and mythological/historical scenes for submission to the Paris Salon, at that time the largest public exhibition in Paris. Artists would submit their work to be judged by the jury of the Salon. If accepted the work would be hung with the hope of attracting public notice, generating sales and recognition. Degas had work accepted but little success.

During the early 1860's Degas began to meet other young artists similarly lacking success in the Paris Salon. First Manet then Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro and others. In 1873 the group formed the Societe Anonyme des Artistes as a way of staging their own exhibitions without submitting work to the Salon jury. Over the next twelve years eight exhibitions were staged with Degas participating in all of them. The group became popularly known as the Impressionists.

Although linked with the Impressionists Degas was never comfortable with the label and by analysing his background and painterly preferences we can perhaps see why. Degas particular individuality, his middle class background, draughtsmanship, study in Italy, and lack of success in the Paris Salon all play their part in his approach to his art. It could perhaps be said that Degas evolution as a painter is a product of his acceptance or rejection of the aesthetic currents of his time.

From the dominant aesthetic of time, the carefully composed dramas from mythological/historical literary sources, he retains a sense of drama and respect for careful composition while rejecting its literary basis. From the Impressionist aesthetic he retains the the subject drawn from life while rejecting its spontaneity and more prosaic elements. (Here perhaps we could contrast Degas with Cezanne. Cezanne accepted the Impressionist aesthetic but ulitmately rejects its methods, with the result that today Cezanne is more highly regarded as an artist than Degas.)

When Degas does paint an outdoor scene the subject is a "gentlemans" subject, the racetrack. Landscape is a backdrop for the drama and movement of horses and jockeys. It is this unwillingness to lose a sense of drama in painting that leads him to the footlights of the stage, circus performers, cafes, ballet classes, in short all the subjects he favours. (see an analysis this blog, 18/02/2012, of Degas' "Spartan Girls Provoking Spartan Boys", a work submitted to the Paris Salon)

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