When people talk about the greatest of the impressionists, Degas is perhaps not the first name that pops up. In fact, while recognized today as a truly great artist, during his lifetime his peers’ success often overshadowed his work.
Born in 1834, Degas was the son of a wealthy Parisian banking family. His family supported his artistic career (not the luxury of everyone at that time) and hence he could pursue painting study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and then go on to more independent training by copying the great older masters in the Louvre. And, it was in fact in the copying of these old masters where Degas seemed to learn a great variety of styles – it is estimated he created over 700 copies of old masters’ work during his lifetime.
Soon afterwards however, in the 1870’s, Degas had already started to develop his own style. But it was not until after a trip to New Orleans in 1872, when he returned to Paris, that Degas turned his attention to his greatest muse of all time – the dancer.
It seems Degas was very inspired by the female form, performers and entertainers. He seemed drawn to a variety of personalities as well as styles – which may be why he never really hit it as big as his peers at that very time when it came to popularity among a greater audience. He was very reluctant to be labelled an ‘impressionist’ and his work reflects this reluctance, showing his draw to more classical styles.
Another thing that set Degas apart was that he actually did not seek out nature, a typical impressionist trait at the time. Landscapes, nature and the natural light of the outdoors didn’t seem to interest him that much. Instead, he favoured working indoors. He thrived in his own studio, studying people in cafes or even in live dance performances.
And, again, it was in these dancers where Degas really came into his own. His years of observing them soon allowed him the freedom to paint them from memory. He would experiment in a variety of styles and materials when he portrayed them. And while so many were painted from memory, he managed to really capture their movement and female form with such perfection that these are his most famous work to date.
The one thing Degas perhaps did have in common with some of his fellow artists of the time, is that he continued working with his favourite subjects into his older age. At this stage he changed the focus of his subjects to some extent, from painting dancers to painting ladies brushing their hair, bathing etc
But instead of painting his muses in oil he started to portray their form in sculpture or pastels, and painting in a looser style - the start of the transition to a more 'modern art' style. For a man who never wanted to be labelled or put into a genre, perhaps this move was no great surprise.
What could be a surprise however, is that no matter how many times he would change his tools, his methods or his style – he always remained devoted to showing the truthful form and fragility of his subjects. And perhaps that is how we remember him best, by what he made us see and still makes us see today. Like he himself said: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see…”.