10 things to know about Edgar Degas

A closer look at an artist widely regarded as the French Impressionist par excellence — despite rejecting the label — from his love of drawing to his private passion for sculpture, his fascination with dancers and horses to his experiments with photography

Edgar Degas, Danseuses (Les Coulisses de l’Opéra), 1886

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Danseuses (Les Coulisses de l’Opéra), 1886 (detail). Oil on canvas. 19⅝ x 24 in (49.8 x 61.1 cm). Sold for €6,101,500 on 31 March 2022 at Christie’s in Paris

His father wanted him to become a lawyer

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas (1834–1917) was born in Paris, France, in 1834. He was the eldest of five children of Augustin De Gas, a wealthy banker, and Célestine Musson De Gas, a Creole woman from New Orleans, who died when Degas was 13.

Just days after having completed his schooling in 1853, Degas registered as a copyist at the Louvre, where he made studies of Greek and Roman sculpture. Augustin appreciated his son’s artistic talent, but wanted him to become a lawyer. Degas duly enrolled in law school, but soon dropped out.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Autoportrait, 1857-58. Oil on paper laid down on canvas. 18½ x 12⅝ in (47 x 32 cm). Sold for £713,250 on 7 February 2012 at Christie’s in London

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was a formative influence

In 1855, Edgar Degas entered the famed École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He also attended drawing classes at the atelier of painter Louis Lamothe, a student of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. It is likely that through Lamothe Degas met Ingres in 1885.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Portrait de Thérèse de Gas, circa 1860. Pencil on laid paper. 12⅜ x 9⅝ in (31.4 x 24.5 cm). Sold for €76,900 on 23 March 2017 at Christie’s in Paris

As a student, Degas frequently enlisted his immediate family as subjects. His drawings of family members, which reflect Ingres’ deep influence, helped Degas explore the placement of figures against the dark ground frequently seen in his early oils. Throughout the 1850s, his sister Thérèse was one of his favoured models. He also painted many portraits of his brother René.

His teachers encouraged him to copy the Old Masters at the Louvre

This became a key component of his early practice. Degas made numerous copies of works by Michelangelo, Raphael and other Renaissance artists, but — contrary to convention — he usually concentrated on a detail, a secondary figure, or a head, so as to focus on the psychological aspects of human expression.

In 1859, Degas turned his attention to painting historical pieces

While his notebooks from this time contain studies for numerous compositions, Degas ultimately completed only five large-scale historical paintings. In one of these, Alexander and Bucephalus (1861), Degas drew upon the life of Alexander the Great.

The influence of the Old Masters is evident not only in terms of subject matter, but also the opulent colours and dense brushwork. The work is now in the National Gallery in Washington D.C.

Degas developed his deep love of drawing at Lamothe’s atelier, which taught drawing from the live nude

In July 1856, Degas travelled to Italy, where he remained for three years. In Rome, he participated in public drawing classes at the Académie de France, making a rigorous study of the body and its musculature. It is perhaps ironic that Degas is generally considered the Impressionist artist par excellence. Though he would exhibit with the Impressionists, he considered himself a Realist above all, and strongly rejected the Impressionist label throughout his life.

Degas was also a sculptor, but did not make pieces for public consumption

In fact, few people apart from Degas’ close friends knew of his work in wax and cast bronze. The only sculpture Degas ever exhibited publicly was Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer), which was included in the 1881 Impressionist exhibition in Paris. In a radical break from 19th-century academic conventions, the wax figure was outfitted with a real tulle skirt, beribboned wig, shoes and stockings.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Petite danseuse de quatorze ans. Bronze with brown patina with muslin skirt and satin hair ribbon on wooden base. Original wax model executed circa 1879-81; this bronze version cast in 1927. Height: 40½ in (102.9 cm). Sold for $41,610,000 on 12 May 2022 at Christie’s in New York

The piece deeply offended contemporary critics like Elie de Mont, who wrote, ‘I don’t ask that art should always be elegant, but I don’t believe that its role is to champion the cause of ugliness.’ Others called it ‘repulsive’, ‘vicious’, and ‘a threat to society’. It was not shown again until 1920. When Degas died in 1917, more than 150 wax sculptures were discovered in his studio. Most are now in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington D.C.

Dancers were frequent subjects in his art, particularly from the corps of the Paris Opéra

If the ballet was the height of fantasy and aspiration, Degas looked at that world with a realist’s eye. The so-called ‘opera rats’ whom he used as models, including the model for The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, were generally poor or working-class girls, and were frequently preyed upon by the Opera’s wealthy male patrons.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Danseuses à la barre, circa 1880 . Pastel, gouache and charcoal on paper. 25⅞ x 19⅞ in (65.8 x 50.7 cm). Sold for £13,481,250 on 24 June 2008 at Christie’s in London

Degas captured his subjects behind the scenes: stretching, or simply waiting backstage. Ingres was far from enthused by Degas’ paintings of dancers, saying of them, ‘We see wretches disfigured by their efforts, red, inflamed with fatigue, and so indecently strapped-up that they would be more modest if they were naked.’

Degas’ interest in the nude figure, particularly the female nude, persisted throughout his career

Perhaps most of all, it was in his nude studies that he introduced new ideas and deepened his artistic practice. His paintings of women in the bath or at their toilette constitute a major theme in his work.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Femme sortant du bain, circa 1886-89. Pastel over monotype on paper laid down on board. 11⅜ x 15⅜ in (28.7 x 39 cm). Sold for £2,422,500 on 30 June 2021 at Christie’s in London

Like his dancers, Degas’ women were not idealised but, as Joris-Karl Huysmans described, ‘real, living, undressed flesh’.

Horses and horse racing were also key subjects for the artist, who was fascinated by the study of movement

Degas produced some 45 oil paintings of horse races, in addition to sculptures, pastels and studies of horses. Rather than document the race itself, his oils focused on the moments just before its start, when both horse and rider were filled with nervous energy.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Cheval au galop sur le pied droit. Bronze with dark brown patina. 12 in (30.5 cm). Original wax model executed circa late 1880s-90s; cast 1920-21. Sold for £2,617,250 on 20 June 2012 at Christie’s in London

Degas began to develop problems with his eyesight in the 1870s

It was partly for this reason that he took up sculpture and, later, photography. In addition to leading him to take up new mediums, his deteriorating condition had significant effects on his painting: colours became bolder and brighter, brushstrokes grew rougher and scenes blurrier, almost abstract. Degas even used his hands to apply paint.

Degas came to appreciate photography’s capacity to provide a sharper perspective, although he only shared his photographs with a small circle of friends and family. Sadly, fewer than 50 of his photographs survive. But those we do have reveal his interest in experimentation and his aesthetic affinities for Symbolism, as reflected in photographs in which his subjects seem to emerge from darkness.

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In 1892, Degas’ Dans un café, or L’absinthe (1875-76) became the first Impressionist work offered at Christie’s.

It was a painting with a past — at the third Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1877, Degas had been forced to attest that the models were not alcoholics. Purchased for £180 by Glasgow art dealer Alexander Reid, it is now in the Musée d’Orsay.

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