Born in Paris, France, in 1834, Edgar Degas’s artistic gifts came to light at a young age. Throughout his adolescence, his father encouraged him to draw and accompanied him to museums throughout Paris, where he began to practice by copying the art works of the great masters. Of particular influence were the works of the Italian Renaissance, which Degas experienced at the Louvre. Degas’s formal training began in the studio of Louis Lamothe, where he was trained in the traditional academic style that stressed the importance of line and draftsmanship. Evidence of this classical education is visible in various early works, including his Young Spartans Exercising (ca. 1860, National Gallery, London), but by 1865 Degas ceased painting academic subjects and shifted his attention to scenes of modern life.
Among the artist’s varied subject matter, leisure activities—such as horse racing, café musicians, and ballet dancers—rose to the forefront. His interest in ballet dancers intensified in the 1870s, and eventually he produced approximately 1,500 works on the subject. These are not traditional portraits, but studies that capture the human body in movement and repose, exploring the physicality and discipline of the dancers, often from unexpected vantage points.
The sense of discipline seen in the artist’s portrayal of dancers serves as a mirror to his own commitment to perfecting his compositions through multiple sketches and studies leading up to a final work. In the nearly fifty years that Degas painted his iconic subject, he continued to study works from throughout the history of art, adapting many of the compositional techniques he observed to his evolving portrayals of dancers.
By the late 1880s, Degas’s eyesight begun to fail. This failure is often attributed to injuries the artist suffered during his service defending Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. From this time until the end of his life, Degas channeled almost all his energy to the portrayal of dancers or nudes.
As time passed, and his eyes continued to fail, Degas shifted his attention from paintings and drawings to sculpture. The works of art created during this period are characterized by a departure from the formality of expression seen in works prior. In contrast to his carefully posed dancers, these portrayals were decidedly un-posed, unselfconscious, and highly expressionistic. In 1912, Degas retired from his artistic practice and died five years later at the age of 83.
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