The Enigma Of Degas

En Français

At the start of World War I, Sacha Guitry(1) took it upon himself to film the great men and women of the French art and literary scene. He succeeded in filming Claude Monet(2) in his garden at Giverny, August Renoir(3) with his paintbrushes tied to his paralysed hands and Auguste Rodin(4) in his studio, amongst others. When he asked to turn his lense to Edgar Degas, however, Degas refused. Guitry thus decided to film him without his knowledge, a few seconds of footage capturing Degas leaving his house and walking along the footpath. Degas similarly disliked being photographed and there are few traces of him in this medium. Aside from some family photos there is an image taken by Carjat(5), a fairly mundane picture from his youth, and another taken by his brother in which Degas is older and his vision had weakened. Degas even refused to pose for the famous Nadar(6) in the studio which hosted the first Impressionist(7) exhibition. In painting, there exist some self-portraits, in one of which a young Degas poses, charcoal in hand, already prioritising line over colour. Degas was one of the first members of the Impressionist movement, created around Renoir, Cezanne(8), Sisley(9), Pissaro(10) and Monet. It was Monet’s painting “Impression, Sunrise” that triggered the irony of critique. The description of the new style as “impressionist” resulted in a title that was immediately claimed by the artists in an act of defiance. Degas himself wanted to call the group “The Intransigents”, a name which was said to be reflective of his character.

Portrait de l’artiste Degas au porte-fusain, 1855, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Source Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Auteur : Etienne Carjat

We know of Degas’ life: his birth to an upper middle class family in Paris; a family who had been part of the nobility from the 14th Century, who had fled France for Naples during the Revolution, who with the support of Prince Murat(11), the King of Naples, established themselves in the banking industry, and, who then returned to Paris. On his mother’s side, a branch of the family originating from Port-Au-Prince(12) had established themselves in New Orleans in the cotton trade. Degas, who had taken his name without its title, made the trip to Louisiana to meet his cousins in 1872. There, he painted one of his first major works, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, which was to be the first of Degas’ works purchased by a public collection, the Musée de Pau(13), where it can be found to this day.

Degas had abandoned the law studies his father wanted him to pursue with a view to entering into business in 1853. He enrolled instead in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts(14), having learned to draw at the Musée du Louvre, copying the works of the Italian and Flemish masters, charcoal in hand, as seen in his famous self-portrait. Degas revered Ingres(15), and when he met him followed his advice: “Draw lines, young man, many lines. It is in this way you will become a good artist” the older painter told him. Degas admired Delacroix(16), his urgency of line, sense of movement and bold use of colours, and would later make a trip to Tangiers(16), following in his footsteps. He also admired the work of Daumier(17) a painter prior to being a genius caricaturist, and would become one of the first to place Daumier in high esteem in his pictorial pantheon. He even borrowed from him the theme of the “laundress” that inspired one of Zola’s best novels.

Strangely, Degas was categorised as an Impressionist and was loyal to this movement having exhibited in seven of their eight exhibitions, despite having an aesthetic that differed completely to that of the others. As with Manet(17), who was from the same generation and of the same social background as him, he drew on the history of painting and admired the Grand Masters. Where Spain influenced Manet, Italy provided a reference point for Degas. In this, both demonstrated the mark of a great artist: the ability to invent something new based on those that came before.

Edgar Degas, Intérieur dit aussi Le Viol, vers 1868-1869, Huile sur toile, 81 x 116 cm, Philadelphie, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Contrary to the Impressionists, Degas never painted outdoors, being not much interested by nature. He remained a studio painter, faithful to the use of chiaroscuro which gave his works such striking affect; as seen in his paintings of the Café Concerts and his interior scenes, such as the disturbing canvas named Interior, also known as The Rape, in which a young woman undresses herself in a halo of light, whilst in the corner standing before a closed door a man contemplates her, as though a predator. A masterpiece overflowing with emotion, this painting inspired many artists including the American Edward Hopper(18), a great admirer of Degas who, without the means to purchase his works, collected his prints.


One sees a little of nature on the racecourse, but it serves as a background for the movement of the horses or the gentlemen in top hats that blend into a composition of learned alchemy.

For Degas, it was above all the upper middle class that drew his critical eye over others; the middle class, artists, writers, those from the worldly circles which he assiduously frequented, all while firing off little arrows of critique to the contentment of columnists. Of the famous painter Ernest Meissonier(19), a specialist in battle scenes associated with “L’art Pompier”, Degas was quoted as saying: “There is nothing to say, this isn’t even bad”.

Remaining single, Degas was a known figure in Paris and the Parisian art scene, notably of the Salon des Rouard, where Edouard Manet and Berthe Morisot(20) were part of the close-knit circle, as was Mallarme(20). He also visited Madame Strauss, the widow of Georges Bizet(21) and one of the “queens” of the Paris scene. It was here that he developed a fatherly relationship with Daniel Halevy(22), 36 years his junior, and to whom we owe one of the most authentic testimonies of the painter(23). This is the world of Marcel Proust(24) and of “The Search for Lost Time”(25).

It is perhaps a lost youth that must have kept open a secret wound and rendered him a misogynist. In the two themes that made him famous, the Dancers and the prostitutes, the easy women or simple unfortunates in search of customers on café terraces, a glass of absinthe in hand, Degas’ gaze is one of terrible cruelty. The author Huysmans(26), who lucidly described Degas, explains how he demonstrated a kind of social hatred of the world of the poor, of the women forced to undertake degrading work, of the prostitution that he reveals even amongst the dancers as they solicited high ranking patrons in order to dance at the Opera. If Zola(27), who admired Degas, wrote to him that he had used this model of women in the cafes for his novel, l’Assommoir, it was in the knowledge that Degas had no compassion for this world. When the Dreyfus Affair(28) erupted, the artistic and literary scene tore apart. Degas, with Renoir and Forain(29), was anti-Dreyfus(30) and Degas fell out with his friend, Daniel Halevy, before being reconciled in 1908, when Dreyfus was reinstated.

Dans un café, dit aussi L'Absinthe, Edgar Degas, 1876, Huile sur toile.
92 x 68, Paris, Musée d'Orsay

Although Degas achieved celebrity, his family was financially ruined by financial crises and risky investments, placing him in a materially precarious situation. In addition, Degas suffered progressive and incurable blindness and the “misfortune” of living to the age of 83!

Yes, the unusual Degas… his work speaks on his behalf. How can one compare painters who, in 30 or 40 years, changed the course of the history of art, buried the official schools and their historical and battle scenes, their codes and rules which had defined the preceding era, and opened the way for modern art which, stage by stage, via Fauvism and Cubism, led to abstraction? 

Gauche: Femme sortant du bain, 1866, Degas, Collection particulière
Droite: Pierre Bonnard, Grand nu à la baignoire, 1924, Collection particulière

Degas would have known all of the events in this artistic upheaval. He was a man of the past, attached to the lessons of the great masters, and yet he was a precursor for modernism. The Nabis(31) were inspired by him, in particular Bonnard(32), for whom Degas’ strong influence is evident in his interior scenes where a woman clears a table, washes herself in a bath or tries on a hat. Each of these actions Bonnard observed in Degas’ work, even if his world is entirely different.

But from all these artists, Edgar Degas stands apart like a solitary planet. From his abundancy of work, today dispersed throughout the world and held by the most prestigious public and private collections, emerge some of the great masterpieces of art; his subject matter, composition, technique, images at once smooth and soft yet violent, pastels bursting with colours, his wax sculptures including one of a 14 year old girl that is the embodiment of the genius of Degas the Sculptor. And yet, from man who didn’t like to be photographed, we see him photographing his models. And in this as well, his talent, his unique eye evokes wonder. His photographs of female nudes are amongst the most beautiful works that he ever created.

Petite danseuse de 14 ans entre 1921 et 1931, modèle entre 1865 et 1881, Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Degas : Après le bain, femme s’essuyant le dos, vers 1896

All the critics who have written on Degas insist on the fact that he was above all impassioned by painting. Not only his own, practiced for as long as his vision allowed, but for those of others. He was a compulsive collector. When his financial situation allowed him, he bought paintings, drawings and etchings. He acquired works by Manet, at his estate sale, by Pissarro, Renoir, Daumier, paintings and pictures of which he possessed hundreds of pieces, as well as 40 odd works by Ingres (he was without doubt the primary private collector of his works). But also those of Delacroix and Japanese prints from the best artists of the Land of the Rising Sun.

One stands before a work by Degas as though before a mystery because one feels that despite his immense notoriety, his annexation by the stream of impressionists, none of that enables us to measure his place in a history rich in master painters. I am not going to attempt to give an explanation, that would be absolute vanity, but to find him a family in which I believe we can better distinguish him. I think that he is one of those artists who is constituted of a dislike of themselves. By this I do not mean in terms of doubting their talents or their artistic engagement, but for whom their characters and the viscidity of life brought forth a solitary critique which, quite simply, distanced them from life. Neither women, nor children, nor friends could bridge this distance.

I include in this family Michelangelo, who painted the Sistine Chapel and died sleeping in a dirty room, on a straw mattress on an iron bed, underneath which sat a chest filled with gold with enough to allow his nephews to purchase half of Tuscany. I include Rembrandt, who throughout his life, created incredible self-portraits that fill us with admiration but which are, if we think about it, a tragic tale of a slow descent towards death; each day the hair whiter, the face more wrinkled, the mouth more bitter. Like Degas, Rembrandt died in a state of semi-misery. I think of Goya, an artist between greatness and tragedy, and of his final days, exiled, like a man asleep for whom the frightening creatures of his dreams are lapping at his feet, announcing a Hell in which he does not even believe. And Van Gogh, the other painting fanatic who would die of it, with his brother dead one year prior to his birth and whose name he wore like a cross.

Edgar Degas is from this family. A genius much greater than the human form that housed it. One understands why he painted so few landscapes. What could nature do against this sense of the tragedy of life? 

Gabriel Andrieu,
pour l'Alliance Française de Melbourne

Brush up your French with Degas & the impressionists

Edgar Degas: life & vision. Starts 19 May | 10.30am or 6.15pm. 5-week course in St Kilda | For level B1 students

Talk - Impressionism: the birth of Modern Art by Florence Thiriot on Thu 26 May, 6.30pm


  1. French playwright, actor, director, director and screenwriter, born February 21, 1885 in St. Petersburg (Russia) and died July 24, 1957 in Paris. One of the great figures of the Parisian art scene and Parisian society, first in theatre in the 1910s and then in cinema from the 30s until the 50s.
  2. French portrait and landscape painter and one of the founders of Impressionism, born November 14, 1840 in Paris and died December 5, 1926 (86 years) in Giverny,
  3. One of the most famous French painters, born February 25, 1841 in Limoges and died December 3, 1919 at the Domaine des Collettes in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Member of the Impressionists, a figure painter of nudes, portraits, landscapes, seascapes, still lifes and genre scenes, a pastellist, engraver, lithographer, sculptor and illustrator. He is believed to have produced nearly four thousand paintings.
  4. One of the most important French sculptors of the second half of the nineteenth century and considered one of the fathers of modern sculpture, born November 12, 1840 in Paris and died November 17, 1917 in Meudon.
  5. A French photographer, journalist, cartoonist and poet, born March 28, 1828 in Fareins (Ain) and died March 9, 1906 in Paris. One of his most famous photographs is a portrait of Arthur Rimbaud, taken in October 1871.
  6. A cartoonist, writer, balloonist and French photographer, born April 6, 1820 in Paris and died March 20, 1910 in the same city. Considered one of the greatest photographers of the second half of the nineteenth century.
  7. Impressionism was a French art movement that originated with several artists of the second half of the nineteenth century. Strongly criticized at first, the movement was prominent particularly between 1874 and 1886 throughout public exhibitions, and marked the rupture of modern art from academic painting. Other than painting, Impressionism had a great influence on the arts of that time, such as the visual arts (sculpture, photography and film), literature and music. The founding artists were Gustave Caillebotte, Mary Cassatt, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Armand Guillaumin, Max Liebermann, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renoir, Théo van Rysselberghe and Alfred Sisley.
  8. A French painter of the Impressionist movement and considered to be the precursor to cubism, born 19 January 1839 in Aix-en-Provence and died October 22, 1906 in the same city. He produced many landscapes of Provence, especially of the Aix-en-Provence countryside.
  9. An English painter and engraver, who mainly lived and worked in France, representative of the Impressionist movement, born October 30, 1839 in Paris and died January 29, 1899 in Moret-sur-Loing.
  10. An impressionist painter and French neo-impressionist of Danish origin, born in St. Thomas (Virgin Islands) July 10, 1830 and died in Paris November 13, 1903.
  11. A French Empire Marshal of 1806-1808 grand Duke of Berg and Clèves, French prince and King of Naples from 1808 to 1815, born March 25, 1767 in Labastide-Fortunière (nowadays Labastide-Murat in the Lot department) and died October 13, 1815 at Pizzo, in the kingdom of Naples. He is also the brother in law of Napoleon, by his marriage with Caroline Bonaparte.
  12. The capital and most populated city of Haiti.
  13. The Museum of Fine Arts of Pau is a municipal museum of the city of Pau in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques. Founded in 1864 by the Société béarnaise des amis des arts (The Bearnese Society of Friends of the Arts) it is the second most important museum in the Aquitaine region, after the Musée des beaux-Arts de Bordeaux (The Bordeaux Museum of Fine Arts).
  14. A prestigious art school worldwide. Four fine arts were taught: painting, sculpture, engraving and, until 1968, architecture.
  15. A French Neoclassical painter, born August 29, 1780 in Montauban and died January 14, 1867 in Paris. From 1835 to 1840 he was the director of the Academy of France in Rome and on May 25, 1862 he was called on to join the Imperial Senate, of which he was a member until his death. Also a violinist, he was, for a time, second violin in the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra. From this pastime the expression violon d’Ingres (hobby) was born.
  16. A romantic painter, considered as the leader of the French Romantic school, born in 1798 in Charenton-Saint-Maurice, died in 1863 in Paris. The expressiveness of his paintings, combined with his research of the visual effects of colour inspired the Impressionism movement in painting. His passion for the exotic was a source of inspiration for Symbolism. 
  17. A major French painter of the late nineteenth century, born January 23, 1832 in Paris and died April 30, 1883 in the same city. An initiator of modern painting, free from academic painting, he is mistakenly considered as one of the fathers of Impressionism. But in fact he differs from Impressionism by his technique concerned with reality that does not use any (or few) new colour techniques or any special treatment of light. However, certain reoccurring themes in his work does link him to the movement.
  18. An American realist painter and printmaker, born July 22, 1882 in Nyack and died May 15, 1967 in New York. He is considered as one of the naturalists. Early in his career, he represented scenes of Parisian life before turning to the American landscape and becoming an attentive witness of social change in the United States.
  19. A French painter and sculptor, specializing in military history painting, born February 21, 1815 in Lyon and died January 31, 1891 in Paris. Very conscious of authentic detail, he was part of the historical realism movement, which appeared in the fine arts during the Second Empire. Showered with honours, he was a member of the Academy of Fine Arts and presided over numerous national and international juries. The lack of spontaneity and life in his works is critiqued posthumously, even condemned by Degas’ cruel comment about his battle paintings, "There are only breastplates that are not made of iron”, and Baudelaire’s labelling of him as “the giant of dwarfs”, alluding to those whose style is labelled “Pompier”.
  20. A French painter and a founding member of Impressionism, born January 14, 1841 in Bourges and died March 2, 1895 in Paris. She married the brother of Edgar Manet. After his death, the Durand-Ruel gallery organized a retrospective of his paintings, watercolours, pastels, drawings and sculptures: there were over four hundred pieces.
  21. A French composer, born 25 October 1838 in Paris and died June 3, 1875 in Bougival. His opera, Carmen, is the most known and played in the world.
  22. A French historian and essayist, born December 12, 1872 in Paris and died February 4, 1962 in Paris. Close to Marcel Proust, he knew Edgar Degas well as Degas was a
  23. close friend of his father. In the 80s he published Degas parle (“My friend Degas”), based on the journal he kept as a teenager and young adult. Elected member of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in 1949, he was also the father and grandfather of the politicians Louis Joxe and Pierre Joxe and the uncle of Daniel Guérin, a Marxist libertarian and supporter of the homosexual cause.
  24. A French writer, born July 10, 1871 in Paris and died November 18, 1922 in the same city. His main work is a novel of 7 volumes entitled "In Search of Lost Time", published
  25. from 1913 to 1927. The work is a major reflection on time and emotional memory as well as on art’s function as a creator of its own worlds. It is also a reflection on love and jealousy, with a sense of failure and emptiness of existence that dampens the Proustian vision in which homosexuality has an important place. The "Search", which refers to the romantic pursuit in everyday language, is also a vast human comedy of over two hundred players. Unique in its genre, it is one of the major works of French literature.
  26. A French writer and art critic, born February 5, 1848 in Paris and died May 12, 1907 in the same city. He took an active part in French literary and artistic life in the last quarter of the nineteenth century until his death in 1907. Defender of Naturalism in its infancy, he parted with the school to explore new possibilities offered by Symbolism, becoming its main representative.
  27. A French writer and journalist, born April 2, 1840 in Paris and died September 29, 1902 in the same city. Considered the leader of Naturalism, he was one of the most popular, published, translated and acclaimed French novelists. His novels have inspired many film and television adaptations. The last years of his life were marked by his involvement in the Dreyfus affair in January 1898 with his article J’accuse…! (“I accuse”), published in the newspaper L'Aurore, resulting in a lawsuit for slander and an exile to London in the same year.
  28. The Dreyfus Affair was a major social and political scandal of the French Third Republic that occurred during the late nineteenth century, concerned with the treason conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was ultimately proved innocent. The affair rocked French society for twelve years, from 1894 to 1906, deeply and permanently dividing it into two opposing camps, those who supported Dreyfus, known as the “Dreyfusards”, and those who did not, known as the “anti-Dreyfusards”. The condemnation of Captain Dreyfus at the end of 1894 - for allegedly handing over secret French documents to the German Empire – took place against a background of espionage and within a social context particularly favourable to anti-Semitism and hatred of the German Empire following its annexation of Alsace and part of Lorraine in 1871. To begin with, the affair had limited interest until the acquittal in 1898 of Esterhazy, the real culprit, and Émile Zola’s “dreyfusard” pamphlet, "J'accuse ...! " which provoked a succession of unique political and social crises in France. This scandal, whose impact was felt internationally, is often seen as the modern and universal symbol of injustice and remains one of the most striking examples of a judicial error that was not easily remedied.
  29. A French painter, goguettier, illustrator and engraver, born October 23, 1852 in Reims and died July 11, 1931, in Paris. Member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts from 1923, he became a member of the Royal Academy in 1931.
  30. cf. (28)
  31. A French painter, engraver, illustrator and sculptor born October 3, 1867 in Fontenay-aux-Roses and died January 23, 1947 in Le Cannet. A post-impressionist artist who
  32. painted nudes, portraits, animated landscapes, interiors, still lifes, flowers and fruits. He was one of the Nabis.

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