Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas Biography

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was born on 19th July 1834 in Paris, France, and he was the eldest out of five children in a moderately wealthy family. At the age of 11 years old he enrolled at Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and graduated in 1853 at the age of 17 with a qualification in Literature. During this education, his mother sadly died when he was 13.

His father was a banker and wanted him to be a lawyer, so later on that year he began to study Law. Degas' heart was not in this career as he wanted to be an artist, so the next year, he converted a room in his house into a studio, and enlisted at the Louvre as a copyist. While painting there one day, he met Jean August Dominique Ingres, one of his favorite artists. Ingres told him, “Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and memory, and you will become a good artist.” In April of 1855, he received admission to École des Beaux-Arts.

The year after, he traveled to Italy for three years. He stayed with his aunt’s family in Naples, and copied many Italian Renaissance and Classic French paintings while there. By 1860, he had painted over 700 pieces, mainly copies. He returned to France in 1859, and moved to Paris to get a studio.

Degas first paintings were historical. He submitted his work Scene of War in the Middle Ages to the Paris Salon in 1865, but it received no attention, and he never did a historical painting again. His work began to gain awareness when he previewed Scene from the Steeplechase: the Fallen Jockey in the Paris Salon of 1886. This piece shows the transition into his new phase of work, a more contemporary manner of art.

In 1864, he met Éduard Manet while at the Louvre; they were copying the same Velázquez painting. Afterwards, he became friends with Manet and his work became more like the Impressionists. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, he enlisted in the National Guard. At rifle practice, he found out that his eyesight was defective, which became a problem for the rest of his life.

After the war, he went to visit his brother in New Orleans, Louisiana. He continued to paint, but most of his works are categorized as Realism. The Cotton Exchange in New Orleans, 1873, was the only piece to ever sell to a museum during his lifetime; it was sold to the Pau Museum. He returned home later that year. In 1874, his dad died. When the will was being divided, Edgar found out that his brother Réne had amassed massive debts. Edgar sold his artwork that he had inherited and his house to help save the family name.

Over the years, Degas had become increasingly disappointed with the Paris Salon, so he started showing his work off with the Impressionists in 1874. He took over the organizing of exhibits, which the Impressionists soon realized was a mistake. Degas put anybody into the Show, which angered everybody. Plus, he hated being called an Impressionist; he didn’t believe he was one. But what Degas didn’t realize is that his experiment with color and form, his pictures of daily life, and his friendships with all the artists, specifically Mary Cassatt made him an Impressionist. In 1886, the group broke up because they couldn’t take Edgar anymore.

Slowly, his financial situation improved, and he was able to start collecting the art he had been forced to sell. Degas idolized Delacroix, Ingres, and Daumier, which were represented well in his compilation, as well as El Greco and other classical artists. His work like the Glass of Absinthe (painting), 1876, and Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (statue), 1881, were well received by the art community, and his popularity increased along with his earnings. A majority of his art is oil paintings, but many of it is done with pastels, like The Tub, 1886, and his other bather pictures.

Through out the years though, Degas had become isolated because of his argumentative nature and more specifically, the Dreyfus Affair. Dreyfus was a Major in the army who was framed for treason because he was Jewish, and was consequently imprisoned. Degas believed him guilty because he hated Jews, but he lost many friends due to his support of this travesty of justice. The last friend to engage with him was Pierre Augustus Renoir, who eventually left him as well. “What a creature, Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay with him until the end.”

Degas stopped painting in 1912, when he was forced out of his long term residence on rue Victor Massé due to a demolition of the building. He spent the latter years of his life wandering around Paris nearly blind. Never marrying or fathering any children, the closest person to him was his assistant, Mary Cassatt. Edgar Degas died in Paris on 27th September, 1917.

Artist's Statement