Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917) was a man and artist of contradictions. Artistically radical, yet politically conservative, Degas had some academic training but could also claim to have been self-taught. Fiercely independent, he exhibited with the impressionists but refused to be labeled as one. His obsessions with certain subject matter—horses, bathers, dancers—were matched by his incredible enthusiasm for a wide range of artistic media and techniques.
Viewed by friends and colleagues as a curmudgeon with a sharp wit, he often wrote privately of his loneliness, despite his preference for the seclusion of his studio. Degas’s vibrantly colored pastels blurred the lines between painting and drawing, yet he once stated that he preferred to work in black and white.
These seemingly contradictory approaches generated a productive tension that helped propel his creativity to new heights. Degas was a restless artist—never satisfied and never finished. Perfection, defined only on his terms, was a constant pursuit and elusive reward.
Degas produced hundreds of studies and finished works depicting ballet dancers, in an incredible range of media. Drawn not only to the spectacle of performances on the grand stage, he was also captivated by commonplace moments in the rehearsal room or backstage. He was interested in the reality of the dancers’ experiences, not just the fantasy. Like Degas, his dancers dealt in contradictions—beauty and pain, grace and vulgarity, playfulness and discipline.
On one hand Degas was obsessed with the technical aspects of art, commenting that “a picture is a series of operations” and toiling away like an amateur scientist in his studio. Alternatively, he was searching for feeling. Degas, crude and often cold, was also a poet, once writing that dancers had sewn his heart “into a pink satin bag, slightly faded satin, like their ballet shoes.”
After producing innumerable works during his long career, Degas died in Paris in 1917 at the age of 83.
Images: Edgar Degas, David and Goliath (detail), 1859, oil on canvas © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait, 1857, drypoint on paper, from a cancelled plate © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Edgar Degas, Dance Examination (Examen de Danse), 1880. Pastel on paper; 24-1/2 x 18 in. Denver Art Museum; anonymous gift. 1941.6