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The eldest son of a Parisian banker, Edgar Degas reinforced his formal academic art training by copying Old Master paintings both in Italy, where he spent three years (1856–1859), and at the Louvre. Degas early on developed a rigorous drawing style and a respect for line that he would maintain throughout his career. His first independent works were portraits and history paintings but in the early 1860s he began to paint scenes from modern life. He started with the world of horse racing and by the end of the 1860s had also turned his attention to the theater and ballet.
Soon after a trip to New Orleans, where his uncle and two of his brothers worked in the cotton trade, in 1873, Degas banded together with other artists interested in organizing independent exhibitions without juries. He became a founding member of what soon would be known as the impressionists, participating in six impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886.
Despite his long and fruitful association with the impressionists, Degas preferred to be called a realist. His focus on urban subjects, artificial light, and careful drawing distinguished him from other impressionists, such as Claude Monet, who worked outdoors, painting directly from their subjects. A steely observer of everyday scenes, Degas tirelessly analyzed positions, gestures, and movement.
Degas developed distinctive compositional techniques, viewing scenes from unexpected angles and framing them unconventionally. He experimented with a variety of media, including pastels, photography, and monotypes, and he used novel combinations of materials in his works on paper and canvas and in his sculptures. He primarily viewed his sculpture as a means of researching movement and publicly exhibited only one, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1878–1881).
Degas was frequently criticized for depicting unattractive models from Paris’ working class, but others, like realist novelist Edmond de Goncourt, championed Degas as “the one who has been able to capture the soul of modern life.” By the late 1880s, Degas was recognized as a major figure in the Parisian art world. Financially secure, he could be selective about exhibiting and selling his work. He also bought ancient and modern works for his own collection, including paintings by El Greco, Edouard Manet, and Paul Gauguin, who became close friends. Depressed by the limitations of his failing eyesight, he created nothing after 1912; at his death in 1917, he was hailed as a French national treasure. About 150 deteriorating clay and wax sculptures were found in Degas’s studio following his death. Their existence had been unknown to all but Degas’s closest associates.