Detail from The Dance Lesson. c.1879, oil on canvas. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington. 1995.47.6.)
One of the things I find most interesting about Degas is his relationship to the Impressionist movement (besides me loving the Degas dancers). He was a founding member of the group that staged the eight exhibitions between 1874 and 1886 in Paris, yet his art is markedly different to that of the famous Impressionists, such as Monet, Sisley and Pissarro, to name but a few.
Of course, no artistic movement sticks to rigid parameters and criteria, but I find Degas’ (and Manet’s) links to this one so interesting because their place as ‘Impressionists’ are so contested. And, if he wasn’t an Impressionist (I’m definitely in the camp that sees them as Realist painters), what links his work to this movement?
Meeting his circle
Born on July 19th 1834, Edgar Degas was the oldest son of a wealthy Parisian banking family, with his mother an American opera singer from New Orleans. His artistic talent was encouraged, and he was actually taught in the traditional academic style. He copied paintings at Paris museums and spent three years in Italy, from 1856 to 1859, doing the same thing.
In fact, Degas met Édouard Manet in 1862 at the Louvre whilst copying Diego Velázquez’s Infanta Maria Margarita. It was this meeting with Manet that led Degas to become part of a community with other young artists that became the Impressionists.
They met at Café Guerbois on what is now the Avenue de Clichy, but was then the Grande Rue des Batignolles – because of this, the group became known as the Batignolles Group, and became a place where exciting new minds met and discussed subjects such as art.
The Impressionist Exhibitions
Eleven years later, on December 27th, 1873, Degas, alongside Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, Morisot, Cézanne and other artists joined together to create the Societé Anonyme Coopérative à Capital Variable des Artists, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs etc. One of the main aims of the society was to organise exhibitions that weren’t governed by juries, such as the Paris Salon (which Degas had exhibited at, but was much more rigid and academic in its structure), at which they could sell their art.
The first exhibition opened on April 15th, 1874, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines (not far from Opéra Garnier), at which Degas showed ten works. It closed after only a month, but made a splash. Claude Monet exhibited his beautiful Impression, Sunrise, which showed the port of Le Havre, his hometown. It is this artwork which effectively gave the Impressionists their name.
The next twelve years saw seven more group exhibitions, six of which Degas showed his art at. It is the fourth exhibition where Degas’ uncertainty about being labelled an Impressionist becomes more obvious: he wanted it to be entitled Groupe d’Artistes Indépendants, Réalistes et Impressionistes to celebrate the diversity of the group’s body of work.
Impressionist or not?
So what about Degas’ art and artistic process set him apart from the Impressionists? Impressionism tends to be summed up in its spontaneity, with natural light, sketchiness of brushwork, capturing the quotidian moments of modern life in the nineteenth century. Most famous are the en plein air landscapes. (Though there are other discussions to be had about whether Impressionism really was apolitical and fleeting, but that’s for another post!)
Degas very much was interested in painting day-to-day experiences and became known for it: Edmond de Goncourt said of him that he was
“the one who has been able to capture the soul of modern life”
His painterly, textured style fitted with the work of his Impressionist contemporaries, though you can see the influence of his traditional academic training in the precision of his drawing.
Degas’ work, as we can see especially in his dancer paintings (he completed some 1,500 works upon the subject), focussed on position, gesture and movement, with unique vantage points that also included stark cropping and the asymmetry he loved from Japanese prints. (Read more about Degas, his friendship with Mary Cassatt, and the influence Japanese art had upon them here).
Portraying the realities of modern life
Another key component in Degas’ work that casts him as an outlier amongst the Impressionists was his love of portraying the sometimes ugly and gritty sides of modernity, exposing the morality, or immorality, of aspects of modern life.
This can be seen in his paintings looking behind the scenes of the theatre: gone is the beauty of performance, and instead we see the hard work the dancers put into contorting and training their bodies. We see the seedy sides of modern life, with men pursuing young dancers backstage and obsessively watching them.
Degas and the dancers
And, it is worth mentioning, Degas himself put hours and hours into watching the dancers go through the pain of performance, sketching and recording it to minute detail. Having researched more about Degas and his attitude to the dancers, I do look at the beauty I perceived in these paintings in a different way when I read in this really interesting Vanity Fair article by John Richardson.
Richardson quotes him as saying
“I have perhaps too often considered woman as an animal”
and to the painter Georges Jeanniot,
“Women can never forgive me; they hate me, they can feel that I am disarming them. I show them without their coquetry, in the state of animals cleaning themselves.”
Like the way Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (read more here and here) was presented in the sixth exhibition in a glass case that invited the inspection of her like a scientific specimen, this suggests it was how Degas saw the ‘little rats’ that frequented the dance studios and performances at the opera which he recorded.
A Realist painter
Degas’ gaze, precision and desire to show the underbelly of modern life set him apart from his Impressionist colleagues, but the motivation behind the work was similar: to look to the contemporary world around them, move outside of the constrictions of the salon and find independence in a new style and age.
Read more about Degas:
- This article in the Chicago Tribune discusses Degas the man (and if we can indeed separate the art and the man), and in particular, Degas’ fervent anti-Semitism following the Dreyfus affair. Linda Nochlin’s excellent essay ‘Degas and the Dreyfus Affair: A Portrait of the Artist as an Anti-Semite’ can be read here. Nochlin wrote: “One must conclude that although Degas was indeed an extraordinary artist, a brilliant innovator, and one of the most important figures in the artistic vanguard of the 19th century, he was a perfectly ordinary anti-Semite.”
- Learn more about the eight exhibitions in this post from Paris Insiders Guide.
- Take an Impressionist Walk through Montmartre here.