Edgar Degas was a great opera fan. He not only saw performances but was among the few privileged people who were allowed to go backstage and watch the ballet dancers practicing or shortly before going on stage. He studied their poses and movements carefully, almost pedantically, and sketched their costumes, the sets, and practice rooms. This led to a great number of works on the subject of ballet for which Degas soon became famous, and with which he is still principally associated today.
A further well-known motif in Degas's extensive oeuvre is the female nude. His depictions met with little enthusiasm on the part of the day's critics, for they differed considerably from traditional approaches to the nude. His aim was to depict women as if they felt themselves unobserved. For his nudes Degas either hired models to come to his studio or relied on drawings from his comprehensive collection.
Against the background of his late work, largely determined by dancers and nudes, Degas's landscapes form an unusual grouping. These are not full-scale oils like the atmospheric depictions of Impressionists like Claude Monet. Rather, Degas created small-format pastels or monotypes printed on paper, most of which he finished with pastels. The depictions became increasingly abstract, so much so that many of them are barely recognizable as landscapes.
At a young age Degas already began to make studies of riders, horses and racecourses, motifs that would concern him his whole life long. At an advanced age the artist also devoted himself to modelling wax sculptures, which were not intended for exhibition and were cast in bronze only after his death in 1917. The pieces served him as studies, enabling him to capture movements in three dimensions.
Most of the people who sat to Degas for their portrait were friends and acquaintances. The double portrait of Henri Rouart and his son, Alexis, depicts one of his closest friends, a mechanical engineer and passionate art collector with whom Degas was acquainted from their schooldays. In addition to the many studies he made for his portraits, the artist likely also recurred to his own photographs, a technique he adopted in the 1880s and 90s. Besides painted portraits, Degas took a number of self-portrait photographs. Many of his photos were destroyed after his death.