French painter and sculptor
Born: Paris, France
“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.”
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Edgar Degas was the eldest of five children of Célestine Musson de Gas, an American by birth, and Auguste de Gas, a banker. Edgar later changed his surname to the less aristocratic sounding ‘Degas’ in 1870. Born into a wealthy Franco-Italian family, he was encouraged from an early age to pursue the arts, though not as a long-term career. Following his graduation in 1853 with a baccalaureate in literature, the eighteen-year-old Degas registered at the Louvre as a copyist, which he claimed later in life is the foundation for any true artist.
After a brief period at law school, in 1855 he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied drawing under the academic artist Louis Lamothe, a former pupil of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. That same year, the Exposition Universelle took place, and Degas was enthralled by Gustave Courbet’s Pavilion of Realism. It was also at the Exposition that Degas first met Ingres, a painter several years his senior, whose personal guidance was valuable.
In 1856, when Degas was aged 22, he traveled to Naples, Italy, to visit his aunt, the Baroness Bellini and her family. This three-year trip was an important moment in his development, and resulted in the Realist portrait The Bellini Family (1859). He spent countless hours combing the museums and galleries of Italy, carefully studying Renaissance works by Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, among others.
In 1864, while copying a picture by Velázquez at the Louvre, he met Édouard Manet, who by chance was copying the same painting. His friendship with Manet was instrumental in the development of Impressionism. The following year, Degas exhibited at the Paris Salon, the first of six consecutive showings, showing works such as Édouard Manet and Mme. Manet and The Orchestra of the Opera (both 1868-69), paintings that subtly blurred the lines between straight portraiture and genre painting.
Although Degas suffered criticism during his lifetime, by the time of his death his reputation was secure as one of the leaders of late 19th century French art. His distinct difference from the Impressionists, his greater tendency toward Realism, had also come to be appreciated. His standing has only increased since his death, though since the 1970s he was been the focus of a lot of scholarly attention and criticism, primarily focused around his images of women, which have been seen as misogynistic.