Biography

Self-Portrait in Library, 1834–1917, Gelatin silver printing-out print, 6.3 x 8.1 cm, Private collection, San Francisco, Photo: © Private collection
Edgar Degas, 1834–1917

1834 Hilaire Germain Edgar De Gas is born in Paris on 19 July, the oldest of five children born to Auguste De Gas, a wealthy banker, and his wife, Marie Célestine Musson.

1845–53 Attends the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where his lessons include instruction in drawing.

1847 His mother dies. He begins visiting museums in Paris.

1853 Receives permission to copy works in the Louvre and in the Prints and Drawings Department of the Bibliothèque nationale. He focuses chiefly on items by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and other Italian Renaissance artists. Complying with his father’s wishes, he enrolls at the Paris Law Faculty, but will not complete his studies there.

1855 Art collector Edouard Valpinçon introduces him to the 75-year-old Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, whom he reveres. He will remember the encounter for the rest of his life. In April he receives one of the hotly contended places to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, but soon leaves.

1856–59 Spends nearly three years in Italy, during which he produces hundreds of studies after Italian paintings of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. On his return to Paris, he leaves his father’s home and moves into a studio in the rue Laval, not far from the boulevard de Clichy.

1860–65 Engages intensively with history painting, creating pictures on biblical, literary, historical, and mythological subjects. At the same time he begins producing studies of horses, jockeys, and racecourse scenes, subject matter that will occupy him for the rest of his career. In 1862 he meets Edouard Manet. This marks the beginning of a long-standing artistic association. Manet introduces him to the group of artists later known as the Impressionists.

1866 He abandons history painting. Over the next two decades he will focus almost entirely on subjects drawn from daily life in Paris: scenes at the races, opera, ballet, and theater or in concert halls, cafés, fashion houses, galleries, museums, laundries, and brothels.

1869 Works for the first time in pastel, a medium that will come to occupy a central place in his oeuvre.

1870 Volunteers for the National Guard when France declares war on Prussia. Like Manet, he is assigned to an artillery division.

1871 Produces his first studies of ballet dancers at the Paris Opéra. They will become a major focus of his work, depicted in a wide variety of compositions and poses. He is alarmed by the first signs of trouble with his eyesight.

1872 Visits his mother’s family in Louisiana, remaining in the U.S.A. for several months.

1874 His father dies. This plunges the family into financial difficulties. As the eldest, unmarried son, he has to bear the brunt of supporting the family. This forces him to promote the sale of his work more vigorously than before. He takes an active part in organizing the first exhibition of a group of artists who soon become widely known as ”Impressionists.” The show is poorly received by the public, but some critics review his contributions favorably.

1878 The museum at Pau in southwestern France purchases an oil painting by him. This is the first work of his to enter a public collection.

1881 At the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition he shows a sculpture for the first time: Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, a wax figure of a ballet dancer featuring real clothes and hair. The public is scandalized by its unvarnished naturalism and lifelike presence.

ca. 1884 He begins focusing intensively on images of women washing, drying themselves, and so forth. They will join ballet dancers as one of the most important subjects in his oeuvre.

1885 Continues paying frequent visits to the Opéra, where he is one of the few people allowed behind the scenes during performances.

1886 At the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition his nudes attract the greatest attention, along with Georges Seurat’s painting Un dimanche à la Grande Jatte. Most critics discuss them, whether favorably or not. Henceforth he turns his back on the art world, and very few authorized solo exhibitions of his work will take place during the rest of his life.

1892 The Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris mounts its first solo exhibition of his work, consisting of a selection of landscape monotypes created since 1890.

1893 Begins devoting himself increasingly to the expansion of his art collection, acquiring in subsequent years works by El Greco, Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, Honoré Daumier, Edouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and others.

1894 His constantly deteriorating eyesight renders work more and more difficult. Yet he continues to produce pastels and charcoal drawings of dancers and women at their toilet, while also making sculptures.

1895 In this year—and possibly the next—he devotes much time to portrait photography, producing pictures that show acquaintances and friends alone or in groups, usually in interiors.

1897 He has become increasingly reclusive. His isolation grows when he proclaims his anti-Dreyfus stance in the affair surrounding the alleged treason of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus—a standpoint contrary to that of many intellectuals and artists.

1908 He has continued to produce drawings and pastels testifying to his undiminished interest in portraiture, racecourse scenes, washerwomen, milliners, and, above all, ballet dancers and female nudes at their toilet. But now, almost totally blind, he abandons painting and drawing. He turns to sculpture, creating wax studies of dancers, women washing, racehorses, and other subjects that will not be cast in bronze until after his death.

1912 His international reputation continues to grow: in this and the following years work by him will repeatedly be shown at exhibitions in France, other European countries, and the U.S.A. Gradually, his work also enters major private collections in Europe and the U.S.A. Imminent demolition of the building at 37, rue Victor-Massé (formerly the rue Laval), in which he has lived and worked for twenty-two years forces him to move. He finds a new home at 6, boulevard de Clichy, but abandons all artistic activity. In his final years he lives a highly reclusive life, receiving very few visitors.

1917 On September 27, Edgar Degas dies of the consequences of a stroke. The following day many fellow artists attend his burial in the family vault at the Cimetière du Nord in Montmartre.

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