Degas was closest to Renoir in the impressionist’s circle, for both favoured the animated Parisian life of their day as a motif in their paintings. Degas did not attend Gleyre’s studio; most likely he first met the future impressionists at the Café Guerbois. Edgar Degas came from a completely different milieu than did Monet, Renoir and Sisley. His grandfather René-Hilaire de Gas, a grain merchant, had been forced to flee from France to Italy in 1793 during the French Revolution. Business prospered for him there.
After establishing a bank in Naples, de Gas wed a young girl from a rich Genoan family. Degas preferred to write his name simply as Degas, although he happily maintained relations with the numerous de Gas family relatives in Italy. He started his apprenticeship in 1853 at the studio of Louis-Ernest Barrias and, beginning in 1854, studied under Louis Lamothe, who revered Ingres above all others, and transmitted his adoration for this master to Edgar Degas. Starting in 1854 Degas travelled frequently to Italy: first to Naples, where he made the acquaintance of his numerous cousins, and then to Rome and Florence, where he copied tirelessly from the Old Masters.
During the 1860s and 1870s he became a painter of racecourses, horses and jockeys. His fabulous painter’s memory retained the particularities of movement of horses wherever he saw them. After his first rather complex compositions depicting racecourses, Degas learned the art of translating the nobility and elegance of horses, their nervous movements, and the formal beauty of their musculature. Around the middle of the 1860s Degas made yet another discovery. In 1866 he painted his first composition with ballet as a subject, Mademoiselle Fiocre dans le ballet de la Source (Mademoiselle Fiocre in the Ballet ‘The Spring’) (New York, Brooklyn Museum).
Degas had always been a devotee of the theatre, but from now on it would become more and more the focus of his art. Degas’ first painting devoted solely to the ballet was Le Foyer de la danse à l’Opéra de la rue Le Peletier (The Dancing Anteroom at the Opera on Rue Le Peletier) (Paris, Musée d’Orsay). In a carefully constructed composition, with groups of figures balancing one another to the left and the right, each ballet dancer is involved in her own activity, each one moving in a separate manner from the others. Extended observation and an immense number of sketches were essential to executing such a task. This is why Degas moved from the theatre on to the rehearsal halls, where the dancers practiced and took their lessons. The ballet would remain his passion until the end of his days.
As he grew older, Degas made more and more sculpture. “With my eyesight going,” he said to the dealer Vollard, “I now have to take up blind men’s work”. He modelled, in wax, what he knew best: ballet dancers, horses and nudes.
In his last years Degas was almost completely blind. He died 27 September 1917. Among the group of several friends who came to accompany him to the Montmartre cemetery there was only one Impressionist: Claude Monet. The other friend who had survived him, Renoir, was confined to an invalid’s armchair. In the midst of the First World War, the painter’s death went almost unnoticed.
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