National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Edgar Degas

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Degas was born to an aristocratic family, unusually supportive of his desire to paint. As a young man he was greatly impressed by the disciplined style of neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who reportedly advised him to “Draw lines, young man, draw lines.”

Throughout his career Degas stressed the importance of careful composition and strong drawing. He was one of the organizers of the first impressionist exhibition in 1874, and remained influential in the group, but his own work was deliberate and controlled, painted in the studio from sketches, notes, and memory. The impressionists like Monet and Renoir, on the other hand, sought an immediate transcription of the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere.

What he shared with the impressionists was an interest in modern life—in Paris' dance halls and cabarets, its racetracks, its opera and ballet stages. "You need natural life," he told his landscape colleagues, “I, artificial life.” In racehorses and ballet dancers he found the kind of movement that fascinated him most: not free and spontaneous, but precise and disciplined. He also studied the simple, everyday motions of working women: milliners, dressmakers, and laundresses.

Perhaps the language of cinema best describes Degas' work—pans and frames, long shots and closeups, tilts and shifts in focus. Figures are cut off and positioned off center. Sightlines are high and oblique. Degas' interest in photography is revealed in these elements of style, and the flat space, patterned surfaces, and unusual angles of Japanese prints, which enjoyed huge popularity in Paris in the late 1800s, also influenced the artist.

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