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Edgar Degas: 1834 - 1917

A member of a Neapolitan banking family that had settled in Paris, Degas studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and then spent a few years in Italy. Although he participated in all the Impressionist exhibitions except the seventh, he sometimes caused disunity within the group and was not deeply involved in their technical innovations - being more concerned with linear and compositional issues. His subject matter ranged from horse-racing and ballet to cafe and brothel scenes. He was also a keen photographer, and in his old age turned largely to sculpture. A lifelong bachelor, Degas was dandified, witty and opinionated.

Degas never really accepted impressionism on Monet's terms, and was its great traditionalist even while he was one of its most startling innovators. It was never necessary for Degas to revert to traditionalism as Renoir was to do, since he had been a traditionalist from the beginning. His innovations, eccentric at first glance, are as a matter of fact brilliantly logical extensions of traditional principles.

Degas was the aristocrat of the impressionists, not only by birth but in his intellectuality and reserve, his personal detachment in observing a commonplace world to record it intimately. Of all the impressionists he is the most subtle, disguised as the most direct; the most reflective, disguised as the most noncommittal; the most acute, disguised as the most casual. He is their finest draughtsman and composer; he is one of the finest draughtsmen and composers of any period. He was the only impressionist to recognize that the momentary effect - with Degas a moment may be split to its ultimate fraction - can be used for complete revelation of individual character. He was, in fact, the only impressionist who was interested in painting individuals as psychological entities. The personalities he thus recorded exist with completeness, a reality, that puts their portraits among the great ones of any age.

Degas is one of those painters whose art is conventionally discussed chronologically. His father, a banker, had planned a career in law for his son, but this study was abandoned in 1855. This was the year of the Exposition Universelle, and Degas was much excited by Courbet's Pavilion of Realism. He was also an admirer of Delacroix. But Ingres was his great man, and the exposition gave him a chance to meet the old painter. M. Valpincon, a friend of Degas' father, owned a couple of Ingres' paintings but had refused lend them to Ingres for a retrospective planned for that year's vast Salon. Degas induced Valpincon to change his mind and Valpincon told Ingres of this. Degas and Valpincon were invited to Ingres studio, where Degas was given the advice to "draw lines, young man, many lines."

Degas loathed the word impressionist with its connotation of the accidental and the incomplete, and he fought against it until he managed to get it dropped from the announcements of the fourth exhibition in 1879, when it was replaced by the word independent. He was not interested in the paraphernalia of outdoor impressionism, the countryside and atmospheric effects. City streets offered him as much fresh air as he wanted; the racetrack was open country enough. Theaters and intimate interiors offered the kind of light and air he liked to paint. He needed artificial life, he said, and not for a moment would he have considered yielding to impressionist seductions to paint at Argenteuil, as Manet finally did. Degas insisted that painting was an art of convention. To imitate nature from the model was bad enough; to imitate all its accidents out of doors was unthinkable. He painted from brief notes and sketches, preferring to observe carefully and then depend upon memory.

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