Short Biography of Edgar Degas

Life and Death of Edgar Degas

Born in the French capital, Edgar Degas was the fifth and last born child of Augustin De Gas and Célestine Musson. His father was a banker providing his family moderate wealth.

At the age of 13, Edgar lost his mother making the teenager’s grandfather and father, the most influential persons during his early life. Degas started painting at an early age.

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By his 18th birthday, Degas had transformed one of his home’s rooms into an atelier, and in the Louvre he registered as a copyist in 1853. However, his father expected Edgar to complete law school.

In November 1853, he duly enrolled at the University of Paris’ Faculty of Law, but in terms of his studies the young artist made little progress. The Bellelli Family, Degas’ first masterpiece’s studies were made in 1858, while he stayed in Naples with the family of his aunt.

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He also created many paintings and drawings copying works by Titian, Michelangelo, Raphael, and several other of the Renaissance’s artists but, contradicting conventional practices, Edgar usually selected a detail from an altarpiece, which had caught his eye - a secondary head or figure that he treated as portraiture.

In 1859, Degas decided to stay in Paris where he moved into an atelier spacious enough allowing him to start creating The Bellelli Family—an impressive canvas Edgar intended to display in the Salon, although the artwork wasn’t completed until 1867.

During this period of time he began working on a number of history paintings as well. By the Franco-Prussian War’s end, in 1872, the artist moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he stayed for a long time.

Having moved into a home on Esplanade Avenue, Degas made several artworks that depicted relatives who also lived in New Orleans. In 1873 Edgar returned to Paris and due to the huge debts made by his brother, Degas’ life for the first time had to depend on earnings provided by sold artworks.

Between 1874 and 1880 he created much of his finest art. During the last years of the 1880s, Edgar Degas began developing an interest for photography. Many of his friends were photographed, usually by lamplight, as can be seen in the artist’s double portrait featuring Mallarmê and Renoir.

Other photos, depicting nudes and dancers, were used as references in several of Degas’ paintings and drawings. As time passed by, Edgar began isolating himself, due to his philosophy that an artist couldn’t have a personal life.

His anti-Semitic ideas became clear due to the Dreyfus Affair controversy and all his Jewish friendships came to an end. Renoir deplored the artist’s argumentative nature, saying: “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay till the end.”

Although it is known that Degas had been working with pastels until late 1907, and is assumed having continued creating sculptures until 1910, he most likely stopped working in 1912, when his longtime residence’s impending demolition forced Degas to move from the rue Victor Massé to the boulevard de Clichy.

Almost blind, the final years of his life a restless and never married Degas spent most of his time wandering Paris’ streets until his death in September 1917.

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