Is a passion for perfection what really drove him? Was it possible to be a heartless artist? Was he truly an Impressionist artist? Watching this documentary about the man and his art you begin to realize while there is a lot to learn there are also plenty of questions which crop up.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was born on July 19, 1834 in Paris. Was born into an upper middle class family. The eldest of five children. His father ran a small family bank. His mother died when Degas as 13. There was a curiousity about art from an early age.
He was a border at one of the most prestigious schools, Lycee Louis Le-Grand. There he learned to draw. In 1855 he entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts. His first inspiration was the great draftsman, Ingres. After only a few semesters Degas went on to Italy. Wanted to train on his own as he traveled through the country.
In 1860, Degas returned to Paris and started working after renting a small studio. A couple of years later he met the painter Manet while both were working at the Louvre as copyists. Manet introduced him to a group of artists known as the Impressionists. As his work became known, Degas was lumped in with them.
In 1870 the Franco-Prussian War interupted his work. In 1871 the French surrendered. It was during this period where it was discovered how bad his eyesight was. He had to be sent away from a fighting regiment to work at a desk. Troubling for an artist. After the war was over he traveled to New Orleans with his brother. There he worked plenty.
In 1874, Degas’s father died leaving large debts for his son to settle. This forced him to sell his art. Not a problem for most artist, but as you might have gathered by now, Degas was not your typical artist. Atypical in that he did not seek to sell his work. Only did so when he needed the money to live. It was almost like he worked just for himself. Or was on the constant hunt for the perfect painting.
He loved the Paris opera. Began making sculptures and paintings of ballerinas. Was interested in the performance of women in their non-performance moments – ballerinas, prostitutues, etc. Degas had a complex relationship with women throughout his life. He did not have any long term relationships with women. Did, however, seem familiar with the inside of brothels. Painted many poor women. Seemed more comfortable with women he paid and in a sense controlled. Whereas he held at arm’s length women of his own class.
As time went on his eyesight worsened even more. He had to give up painting and began only sculpting. Said he had to turn to a blind man’s art.
During the last decade of his life Degas really isolated himself. He died at the age of 83 in Paris in September 1917. After his death all his work in his studio was catalogued. There was a ton. A ton which had never been seen before. None of it was signed. So they were stamped with his signature to mark their authenticity.
Though most see him as an Impressionist most experts describe his work as more Realist. Degas thought of himself as an independent. Whatever label you place upon him or category you slot him into is wrong. As Degas was a one of a kind. A true free spirit. An artist who pushed boundaries and experimented constantly.
Also not a true Impressionist as he did not do landscapes. Degas mostly did portraiture or the human figure. Nothing about his art is spontaneous. It was all mapped out. All learned from paintings by the masters.
The picture painted of Degas was through his own letters, quotes about him by contemporaries/friends and interviews with curators, art historians, curators, conservators, and professors. All this leads to a picture as clear as Monet’s Waterlilies. Degas was a complex man. Hard to piece together a single picture of his personality. He was a wonderful dinner guest, but also loved to isolate himself. Another part of him was abrasive with a sharp tongue. A strong conservative and views bordering on anti-semetic. Yet within his work he was adventurous and experimental. The big takeaway from this film is that he was a flawed genius.