Edgar Degas Is Considered
Edgar Degas is considered to be one of the founders of the Impressionist movement, yet he refused to use the term to define himself in favor of others. Describing himself as a “realist’ and “independent,” Degas’ take on Impressionism was distinct from many other Impressionist artists and their techniques. Although he had his own individual characteristics, Degas also drew from inspiration that was common in the Impressionism world, Japanese culture and art. Degas’ use of academic techniques, experimentation of medium, lighting, composition, and inspiration, was unique and set him apart from others during the Impressionist movement.
Degas began his artistic journey learning traditional academic style, copying Italian Renaissance paintings at the Louvre, and training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Louis Lamothe. He later moved to Italy to study the works of Florentine Masters, further extending his traditional knowledge. “Critics approvingly pointed out that his work was grounded in a knowledge of the Old Masters and a firm line, qualities they found lacking in some of Degas’s peers.” (Kendall) His study of sixteenth century Italian mannerists, where paintings often cut off figures at the edge of paintings, can be seen in several of his works including A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers, where the main figure is cut off on the right side of the work. In Degas’ early works, he had little experimentation, mainly using oils for finished works and other mediums for sketches, but eventually swayed towards to usage of a combination of mediums. Through his experimentation of mediums, Degas began to develop new styles in his artwork by combining techniques from old masters with new ideas. The painting Dancer with a Bouquet Bowing, which had a “black and white monotype as a independent medium … with an added layer of pastel or gouache,” (Kendall) represents the combination of old and new. Degas’ experimentation of mediums also gave his work a uniqueness. His work was not only limited to drawing and painting, Degas also investigated photography and sculpting. He used a vast array of mediums over his career and combined them within his works. Even with so much experimentation, Degas was able to keep many aspects of the style and techniques of the Old Masters alive within his work. The utilization of technical academic techniques made many of Degas’ works stand out from other Impressionists.
A particularly distinctive feature of many works in the Impressionist movement is the depiction of color and light within a scene. As Impressionists were often focused on light and color, subjects of works were commonly natural and atmospheric scenes. Degas was focused less on these en plein-air landscapes and more so on the human body, with a special interest on ballet dancers and scenes of life in Paris. Degas once said, “It has never occurred to them (critics) that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.” (Trachtman) He would study the ballerinas at the Palais Garnier, the home of the Paris Opera and Ballet, where he painted and drew scenes from the ballet studio and backstage. Because the ballet dancers were inside, Degas’ works were illuminated by artificial light, both in the subject of the painting and the places in which he worked. The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the rue Le Peletier and Dancers Practicing at the Barre are two examples of his works of ballet dancers in class. Degas would also bring dancers into his art studio to pose for works. In one such instance, Degas brought dancer Marie van Goethem to his studio to pose for his statue, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Degas was also fascinated by new angles of viewing and vantage points for his works. Many of his pieces are characterized by not only the artistic techniques, but also the asymmetrical perspective and vantage point. A dancer from the opera once recalled that Degas “used to stand at the top or bottom of the many staircases . . . drawing the dancers as they rushed up and down.” (Trachtman) This aspect of his work was especially characteristic and can be seen in works throughout his career, from Green Dancer to Dancers Pink and Green. In Two Ballet Dancers 1879, the vantage point is from below and the work is asymmetrical, with both dancers nearing the top of the painting rather than centered.
When Commodore Matthew Perry began relations with the Japanese court, Europeans became more and more influenced by Japanese culture. Japonisme is the term that was used by the French to describe the Japanese style and aesthetic. Woodblock prints were the most influential on Impressionism, where “prints feature broad areas of flat color with a limited amount of modulation or gradation,” (Kleiner, 850). The prints received the attention of many artists, including Degas, as seen in is painting The Tub. In comparison to a print by Torii Kiyonaga called Two Women at the Bath, it is evident that Degas was inspired by the position of the woman bathing and the two dimensional feeling of the print in his painting. The sharp angle of the vantage point from above creates a flatness and shows the translation of the Japanese style into Impressionism. Degas’ expression of his inspiration from Japanese art was very different from other Impressionist artists. Several artists would depict exact features of Japanese culture in their art, including Kimonos and other props, but Degas drew from a compositional aspect. “Instead, he absorbed qualities of the Japanese aesthetic that he found most sympathetic elongated pictorial formats, asymmetrical compositions, aerial perspective, spaces emptied of all but abstract elements of color and line, and a focus on singularly decorative motifs. In the process, he redoubled his originality.” (Ives) Even though Degas’ work shares the inspiration of Japanese art and culture with many other Impressionist pieces, he was able to keep his originality.
Although he personally rejected Impressionism, Degas was one of the most active and key members of the movement, and his artwork has been largely influential throughout history. Through his academic roots, experimentation, composition, and influences, Degas’ work is distinct and sets itself apart from others in the Impressionist movement.