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Degas' Techniques

In copying the Old Masters, Degas sometimes attempted to uncover their techniques. For example, when he copied Andrea Mantegna and some of the Venetians, Degas tried to simulate the Venetian method of building up the canvas with layers of cool and warm tones by a series of glazes. From the mid-1870s he worked increasingly in pastel; and in his last years, when his sight was failing, he abandoned oil completely in favor of pastel, which he handled more broadly and with greater freedom than before.

Pastel, for the most part an 18th-century medium, helped Degas produce qualities of airiness and lightness, as in the "Ballerina and Lady with Fan" (1885). However, Degas would endlessly experiment with unusual techniques. He would sometimes mix his pastel so heavily with liquid fixative that it became amalgamated into a sort of paste. He would do a drawing in charcoal and use layers of pastel to cover part of this. He would combine pastels and oil in a single work. He would even pass through a press a heavily pigmented charcoal drawing in order to transfer the excess of pigment onto a new sheet so as to make an inverse proof of the original. In his monotypes he used etching in a new way: he inked the unetched plate and drew with a brush in this layer of ink; then he removed all the ink in places to obtain strong contrasts of light and dark or painterly effects in this printing medium. Thus, in a variety of ways Degas succeeded in obtaining a richness of surface effects.

Bronze Sculptures

After 1866 Degas executed bronze statues of horses and dancers, up to three or four feet high, which complemented his interest in these subjects in his paintings. His bronze and painted wax figures of dancers, like the "Little Dancer of Fourteen Years" (1880-1881), are often clothed in real costumes, an innovation that gives them a remarkable immediacy. In the statues of dancers, Degas catches the figures in a transitory moment, as they are about to change position. As in the paintings, Degas strips the dancers of glamour and sometimes reveals them as scrawny adolescents. The surfaces of Degas' bronzes are not smooth but retain the rich articulations of the wax and thereby complement the expressive surfaces of the impressionist painting.

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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