Edgar Degas was born in Paris in 1834 to a wealthy banking family. After spending three years in Italy copying Italian master paintings, he returned to Paris, focusing on a variety of contemporary subjects—including dancers, race horses, seascapes, and brothel scenes. Although he travelled extensively in the early 1870s, Degas spent the majority of the rest of his career in Paris.
Key piece to look for: Double Portrait–The Cousins of the Painter, 1865
Degas is best known for his pastels of Parisian dancers, opera singers, and bathers. Although he chose traditional subjects, he sought a more realist approach to them. He depicted ballerinas, for example, waiting for their cue in the wings, adjusting their shoes, stretching, and scratching. Always an experimentalist, he worked in a variety of techniques, often layering oil pastels over pencil, charcoal, monotype prints, or several other layers of pastel, creating a richness of color. Pastel also allowed him to leave some parts of the image sharp and others blurred, an effect that he used to show movement and to focus on the individual facial expressions and natural gestures of his models. He used composition to focus further on these details, often closely cropping his figures or surrounding them with vast amounts of space. He applied these same techniques toward this intimate portrait of his two cousins—turning the girls away from each other to portray their relationship, and leaving one cousin’s face blurry and one sharp in order to depict their individual personalities.
Image credit: Edgar Degas, Double Portrait–The Cousins of the Painter, about 1868-1870. Oil on canvas; 23 1/2 x 28 13/16 in. Wadsworth Atheneum; The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund.