The French artist Edgar Degas is best known for his paintings of ballet dancers although he was a master at other art forms as well. The Degas paintings are filled with flowing lines, movement and passion. His sculptures, sketches and photographs are of everyday life. He is classified as an impressionist but considered himself a realist. Female nudes, portraits, horses, jockeys and ballet dancers were his favorite subjects.
Degas showed an early preference to painting although his father wanted him to study law. On a visit to Naples to see his aunt he started preliminary sketches for the well known work The Bellelli Family which depicted his family.
He spent time in New Orleans with his brother and it was here that he painted A Cotton Office in New Orleans. This painting was the only one he personally sold to a museum. In 1874 he went back to Paris and spent the rest of his life there. He was a complex character prone to arguing with everyone and this resulted in all his friends deserting him and when he died in 1917 he was entirely alone.
One of his most famous ballet paintings is The Dance Class. He completed more than 1500 artworks with this theme and also made beautiful sculptures of ballet dancers. His dancer’s arm movements, signs of exhaustion and tension as they practiced were all emotions he brought to life.
Degas drawings and paintings of people and horses are precise in detail and every muscle and line is perfectly executed. When he discovered photography he immediately embraced it and used it extensively. Some of his oils painted at that time reflect the subdued colors reproduced in photographs. Two famous paintings done in 1874 and 1876 of a ballet teacher and one of a class in rehearsal are painted photographic color tones.
The Place de la Concorde oil has an almost frozen in time photograph quality about it. In all these works he endeavored to capture every detail with great accuracy and to give the viewer the feeling that his subjects were going to take their next step. The feeling of looking through a camera lens is also brilliantly depicted in Musicians in the Orchestra which is a scene painted from the audience towards the stage.
His nudes were mostly of woman preparing their toilette and doing their hair. One of the more famous ones is owned by Moscow’s Pushkin Museum and is done on paper with pastels. The background is less busy and the body colors are soft and life-like.
Unlike his contemporaries he preferred to work in a studio painting from memory or photographs and sketches. Although he did not consider himself an impressionist he painted in that style using lighting, movement and real everyday subjects. Many of his paintings show his skill at depicting the human body in motion.
Edgar Degas was acknowledged as an artist of stature in his own lifetime. The Degas paintings consisted of many styles as he experimented with bold colors which brought a dynamic flair to his oils and sketches. He used everyday activities as subjects for his work and immortalized them. Today many of his works can be seen in museums and famous art galleries around the world.