Degas, Hilaire Germain Edgar


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Degas, Hilaire Germain Edgar

 

Born July 19, 1834, in Paris; died there Sept. 27, 1917. French painter, graphic artist, and sculptor.

In 1855-56, Degas studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. From 1854 to 1859 he lived for long periods of time in Italy, where he studied the Italian art of the quattrocento. He was influenced by J. A. D. Ingres, and this strengthened his interest in line as the basis of form in painting. Degas began his career with portraits and historical scenes marked by strictness of composition, for example, The Bellelli Family (c. 1858-60, Museum of Impressionist Art, the Louvre, Paris). The keen and dynamic perception of his milieu and of the everyday life of man that began to mark Degas’s work in the late 1860’s allied him with the impressionists in the 1870’s. Fascinated by the diversity and activity of city life, he painted the ever-changing aspects of the Paris of his day (its streets, theaters, cafés, and race tracks), re-creating the atmosphere of a capitalist city (Place de la Concorde, c. 1875; Absinthe, 1876, Museum of Impressionist Art).

Degas depicts people’s characteristic behavior and appearance, born of the particular conditions of their work and everyday life (Woman on the Terrace of a Café, monotype, pastel, 1877; Women Ironing, c. 1884, both in the Museum of Impressionist Art). Degas reveals the mechanism and the plastic beauty of the “occupational” gesture, pose, and movement. Degas’s great attention to his subjects (often members of the lower classes) and his assertion of the aesthetic meaningfulness of their ordinary lives reveal his unique humanism. His art combines the beautiful and at times the fantastic with the prosaic. While his many ballet scenes convey the festive and magnetic atmosphere of the theater (The Star, pastel, 1878, Museum of Impressionist Art, the Louvre), Degas, an objective and subtle observer, captures at the same time the exhausting monotonous labor hidden behind the elegant spectacle (The Dance Examination, pastel, 1880, private collection, New York).

The works of Degas, with their displaced composition (asymmetric and with the dynamic, fragmentary quality of a motion-picture frame) and with their precise and supple lines, unexpected foreshortenings, and active interplay of figure and space (the painter visualized space from above, from a very high point), combine a seeming spontaneity and accidental quality with careful study and precise calculation. The subtle restraint of the colors in the works of the 1870’s is gradually augmented with effects created by strong artificial light. The works of the 1880’s and 1890’s, depicting ballet dancers and nudes at their toilette, and executed primarily in pastel, take on a tense quality. The colors are richer and more intense and the forms are larger, flatter, and more closely juxtaposed in space (Dancers in Blue, pastel, A. S. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow). From the late 1880’s to the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century Degas did a great deal of work in sculpture. In his figures of dancers, bathers, and horses (often studies in modeling), Degas strove to achieve a plastic expressiveness in conveying fleeting motion and the sharpness and unexpectedness of a pose, while preserving the figure’s plastic wholeness and clear-cut quality.

REFERENCES

Tugendkhol’d, Ia. Edgar Dega i ego iskusstvo. Moscow, 1922.
[Zernov, B. A.] Dega. (Album.) Leningrad-Moscow, 1965.
Rusakova, R. Dega. Moscow [1968].
Lemoisne, P. A. Degas et son oeuvre, vols. 1–4. Paris, 1946–48.
Cabanne, P. Edgar Degas. Paris, 1957.
L’opera completa di Degas. Milan, 1970.

O. V. MAMONTOVA