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Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas

Birth: July 19, 1834 in Paris, France
Death: September 27, 1917 in Paris, France
Nationality: French
Occupation: artist, painter, sculptor

The French painter and sculptor Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is classed with the Impressionists because of his concentration on scenes of contemporary life and his desire to capture the transitory moment, but he surpassed them in compositional sense.

Edgar Degas was born on July 19, 1834, in Paris, the son of a well-to-do banker. From an early age Edgar loved books, especially the classics, and was a serious student in high school. His father hoped his son would study law, but Edgar enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1855, where he studied under Louis Lamothe, a pupil of J. A. D. Ingres. Degas always valued his early classical training and had a great and enduring admiration for Ingres, a painter with a decisively linear orientation.

In 1856 Degas went to Naples, where his sister lived, and eventually he settled in Rome for three years. He admired the Early Christian and medieval masterpieces of Italy, as well as the frescoes, panel paintings, and drawings of the Renaissance masters, many of which he copied. Back in Paris in 1861, he executed a few history paintings (then regarded as the highest branch of painting). Among these was the "Daughter of Jephthah" (1861), which is based on a melodramatic episode from the Old Testament. He copied the works of the Old Masters in the Louvre, a practice he kept up for many years.

From 1862 until 1870 Degas painted portraits of his friends and family. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, he served in the artillery of the national guard. Two years later he went to New Orleans to visit members of his family, who were in the cotton business. Between 1873 and 1883 Degas produced many of his paintings and pastels of the racecourse, music hall, café, and ballet. He had no financial problems, and even prior to the 1870s he had established his reputation as a painter. Degas stopped exhibiting at the respected Salon in 1870 and displayed his works with those of the less well-established Impressionists until 1886. Although he was associated with the Impressionists, his preoccupation with draftsmanship and composition was not characteristic of the group.

Beginning in the mid-1870s Degas suffered from failing eyesight. From the 1890s on he became increasingly miserly and more and more of a recluse. In the last years of his life he was almost totally blind and wandered aimlessly through the Parisian streets. He died on September 27, 1917, in Paris.

Source: ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD BIOGRAPHY, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998.

Top banner photos: Re-creating a Degas charcoal drawing; Degas' painting "The School of Ballet," c. 1873 (The Corcoran Art Gallery); Peter Badger portrays Degas painting the "Frieze of Dancers."

"Green Dancer," c. 1880. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY)

Detail of "Green Dancer," c. 1880. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY)

Recreation of Degas sculpting "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen."

A re-creation of Edgar Degas sculpting the only sculpture he ever exhibited in public, "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen."

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