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Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas (July 19, 1834 – September 27, 1917) was a French painter and sculptor.

Born Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas in Paris, France, he was the oldest of five children. Madame de Gas belonged to a French family that settled in America. Fond of his mother, her death in 1847 was a deep personal tragedy for Degas. His father, a banker, encouraged his son's artistic inclination. Degas received a classical education at Lycee Louis-le-Grand from 1845 to 1852, then studied law.

Degas' innovative composition, influenced by photography and Japanese woodblock prints called Ukiyo-e (Japonism), his skillful drawing, and perceptive analysis of movement made him one of the masters of progressive art in the late 19th century. He is especially known for his paintings of ballet dancers and other women, as well as of race horses. Often considered an impressionist, some of his work shows classical and realist styles, and other times romanticism.

In 1852 he transformed a room of the family home into a studio and worked under the tutelage Felix Joseph Barrias. In 1855 Degas began study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris under Louis Lamothe, a disciple of Ingres for whom Degas would retain great respect. However, he found the course unprofitable and too restricting, and preferred independent study in the classical tradition. So, he drew and painted copies of the old masters in the Louvre, a practice he continued for many years. He travelled throughout Europe to study the prints of Dürer, Mantegna, Rembrandt and Goya.

The Dance Class (La Classe de Danse), painted 1874.For three years he lived in Rome, Italy, where his sister also lived. While there he admired the Italian Early Christian and medieval masterpieces, as well as the frescoes, panels, and drawings of the Renaissance masters.

In 1859 Degas opened a studio in Paris, and painted portraits and historical subjects which were popular with art buyers at the time. He quickly established clients in French art circles and did not experience the financial difficulties of many of his contemporaries.

Degas abandoned the historical genre in 1866 for several reasons. In 1862 Degas met Édouard Manet who preferred themes of modern life to traditional subject matter of history and religion. Degas also met novelist Edmond Duranty who passionately believed in realism and wanted to remove the barrier between art and life. Degas frequented Café Guerbois where many artists associated with impressionism regularly met.

His art of the late 1860s reflects his changing views. He turned to theatre and the racecourse for inspiration. The influence of Japanese art and its depiction of figures began to show in his paintings.

During the Franco-Prussian War (1870 – 1871) Degas served in the artillery. He contracted a severe chill during his service, and for the first time had trouble with his eyes.

Degas lived with family members in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1872 and 1873, living at 2306 Esplanade (the house now operates as a bed and breakfast and guided tours are available). One of the paintings he did in New Orleans, The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans, garnered favourable attention back in France, and was his only work purchased by a museum (that of Pau) during his lifetime.

At the Races, 1877 – 1880, Edgar Degas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.Upon his return to Paris he opened another studio and concentrated on themes from modern life such as dancers, acrobats, singers and washerwomen. He also rendered female nudes, which, along with dancers, became his favourite subject matter.

In 1874 Degas' father died, and to pay off the vast inherited debt, he sold some of his art collection.

From 1874 Degas sent works to the impressionist shows (he helped organise the first impressionist exhibition). In 1881 he showed The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, his only sculpture exhibited during his life. After the last impressionist exhibition in 1886, Degas stopped sending works to exhibitions.

In the 1880s, with his eyesight failing, Degas shifted his talent to sculpture and pastel, which did not require such acute vision. By the 1890s worked only on large compositions and in 1908 he gave up art completely. Ever more reclusive and eccentric, Degas was evicted from his home and a new studio was found for him, but he never settled there. He wandered the streets like a blind Homer.