Degas was born in Paris, France, the eldest of five children of Célestine Musson De Gas and Augustin De Gas, a banker. The family was moderately wealthy. At age eleven, Degas (as a young man he abandoned the more pretentious spelling of the family name) began his schooling with enrollment in the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, graduating in 1853 with a baccalauréat in literature.
Degas began to paint seriously early in his life. By eighteen he had turned a room in his home into an artist’s studio, and had begun making copies in the Louvre, but his father expected him to go to law school. Degas duly registered at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris in November 1853, but made little effort at his studies there. In 1855, Degas met Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, whom he revered, and was advised by him to “draw lines, young man, many lines.” In April of that same year, Degas received admission to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied drawing with Louis Lamothe, under whose guidance he flourished, following the style of Ingres. In July 1856, Degas traveled to Italy, where he would remain for the next three years. There he drew and painted copies after Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and other artists of the Renaissance, often selecting from an altarpiece an individual head which he treated as a portrait. It was during this period that Degas studied and became accomplished in the techniques of high, academic, and classical art.
After returning from Italy in 1859, Degas continued his education by copying paintings at the Louvre; he was to remain an enthusiastic copyist well into middle age. In the early 1860s, while visiting his childhood friend Paul Valpinçon in Normandy, he made his first studies of horses. He exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1865, when the jury accepted his painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages, which attracted little attention. Although he exhibited annually in the Salon during the next five years, he submitted no more history paintings, and his Steeplechase—The Fallen Jockey (Salon of 1866) signaled his growing commitment to contemporary subject matter. The change in his art was influenced primarily by the example of Édouard Manet, whom Degas had met in 1864 while copying in the Louvre.
At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Degas enlisted in the National Guard, where his defense of Paris left him little time for painting. During rifle training his eyesight was found to be defective, and for the rest of his life his eye problems were a constant worry to him.
After the war, in 1872, Degas began an extended stay in New Orleans, Louisiana, where his brother René and a number of other relatives lived. Staying in a house on Esplanade Avenue, Degas produced a number of works, many depicting family members. One of Degas’ New Orleans works, depicting a scene at The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans, garnered favorable attention back in France, and was his only work purchased by a museum (that of Pau) during his lifetime.
Degas returned to Paris in 1873. The following year his father died, and in the subsequent settling of the estate it was discovered that Degas’ brother René had amassed enormous business debts. To preserve the family name, Degas was forced to sell his house and a collection of art he had inherited. He now found himself suddenly dependent on sales of his artwork for income. By now thoroughly disenchanted with the Salon, Degas joined forces with a group of young artists who were intent upon organizing an independent exhibiting society. The first of their exhibitions, which were quickly dubbed Impressionist Exhibitions, was in 1874. The Impressionists subsequently held seven additional shows, the last in 1886. Degas took a leading role in organizing the exhibitions, and showed his work in all but one of them, despite his persistent conflicts with others in the group. He had little in common with Monet and the other landscape painters, whom he mocked for painting outdoors. Conservative in his social attitudes, he abhorred the scandal created by the exhibitions, as well as the publicity and advertising that his colleagues sought. He bitterly rejected the label Impressionist that the press had created and popularized, and his insistence on including such comparatively traditional artists as Jean-Louis Forain and Jean-François Raffaëlli in their exhibitions created rancor within the group, contributing to their eventual disbanding in 1886.
As his financial situation improved through sales of his own work, he was able to indulge his passion for collecting works by artists he admired—old masters such as El Greco and such contemporaries as Manet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. Three artists he idolized, Ingres, Delacroix, and Daumier, were especially well represented in his collection.
In the late 1880s, Degas also developed a passion for photography. He photographed many of his friends, often by lamplight, as in his double portrait of Renoir and Mallarmê. Other photographs, depicting dancers and nudes, were used for reference in some of Degas’ drawings and paintings.
As the years passed, Degas became isolated, due in part to his belief that a painter could have no personal life. The Dreyfus Affair controversy brought his anti-Semitic leanings to the fore and he broke with all his Jewish friends. In later life, Degas regretted the loss of those friends.
While he is known to have been working in pastel as late as the end of 1907, and is believed to have continued making sculpture as late as 1910, he apparently ceased working in 1912, when the impending demolition of his longtime residence on the rue Victor Massé forced a wrenching move to quarters on the boulevard de Clichy. He never married and spent the last years of his life, nearly blind, restlessly wandering the streets of Parisbefore dying in 1917. Degas’ last years were sad and lonely, especially as he outlived many of his closest friends.
Hand colored Lithograph AFTER the original Hand Colored Rare Monotype. Published in Paris, of a limited edition and supervised-approved by the artist estate. Work measure: 6 by 9 inches, on wove paper and in good condition.
Art (paintings, prints, frames)