biography, books, exhibition Degas at Harvard
Article added on November 1, 2005
In his NYT review of the
exhibition Degas at Harvard, Holland Cotter describes Edgar Degas as
"a contrary, difficult man: a sociable misanthrope, a shy egomaniac, a
cosmopolitan nationalist, an egalitarian snob. As an artist, he was
constantly pulled between aesthetic extremes: reaction and revolution, past
and present, fantasy and life."
Degas showed little concern for the established techniques of the Parisian
art academies. He experimented with new techniques, e.g. from Japan and new
subjects, previously ignored by the art elite.
The French painter and sculptor Edgar Degas was born Hilaire Germain Edgar
De Gas in Paris on July 19, 1834. He was the oldest son of Auguste De Gas, a
wealthy French banker with Neapolitan origins, and Célestine, his Creole
wife from New Orleans. The
family name "Degas" had been changed to "De Gas" in order to sound more
aristocratic. Edgar went back to the original spelling in the 1870s.
Degas' mother died young, in 1847, leaving young Edgar in a state of shock.
From 1845 to 1852, he frequented the lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. After
this classical education, he enrolled at the faculty of law at the Sorbonne
At the same time, like so many other art students before and after him, Degas
copied the great masters in the Louvre in order to develop and improve his
skills. His father encouraged his artistic ambitions.
As Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), one of the foremost painters
of his time, Degas believed in the primary importance of drawing, as opposed
to Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), who emphasized the importance of color in
painting. Through the father of a friend - the Valpinçon family owned
Ingres' Grande Baigneuse painting - Degas managed to meet Ingres in
the flesh. Still, Degas admired both artists and later collected their
works. Degas described himself later as a "colorist with line" combining the
influences of Ingres and Delacroix in his own work.
In 1854, Degas cut short his studies at the Sorbonne and took lessons with the painter Louis Lamothe (1822-1869),
himself a disciple of Ingres. In 1855 and 1856, he frequented the Ecole des
Beaux-Arts where Lamothe taught. However, Degas found the academic courses
too restricting and decided to study art on his own, copying the old masters
in the Louvre and traveling to Italy to confront himself with Italian art.
From 1856 to 1859, Degas traveled through Italy, where his sister lived. He mostly
stayed at the
houses of relatives in Naples and Capodimonte. In Rome and Florence, he studied the
masterpieces by Italian artists such as Botticelli and Raphaël and worked,
together with other young French artists, at the Villa Medici.
In 1859, he returned to Paris, where he opened a studio, painting historical
subjects and portraits. He quickly managed to establish himself as a sought
after painter. He returned to Naples and Florence
in 1860, where he created the history painting Jeunes filles spartiates
provoquant des garçons à la lutte (The National Gallery, London, where it
is called Young Spartans Exercising) and Sémiramis construisant
Babylone (c. 1860-62).
During the 1860s, Degas began collecting Japanese woodprints (ukiyo-e),
which gradually influenced his style. He particularly studied Katsushika
Hokusai's (1760-1849) Manga.
Among Degas' friends were Paul Gauguin, whom he supported by buying some of
his artworks, and the American impressionist Mary Cassatt, whose father was
a wealthy banker too. She was Degas' model for several prints and paintings.
Both, Cassatt and Gauguin were, like Degas, influenced by Japanese art.
In 1862, Degas met Edouard Manet, a master of themes of daily life as well
as of still life painting. Another acquaintance was the novelist Edmond
Duranty, an advocate of realism. In consequence, Degas abandoned the
historical genre and turned to daily life.
In 1866, Degas made his first horse race paintings (Steeple-Chase),
one of his famous subjects. Horse racing had been introduced in France from
England in the 19th century. The Jockey Club was inaugurated in 1833, the Longchamp stadium opened in 1857. The upper
class who frequented the opera
could also be found on the race tracks.
In 1869, he joined Edouard Manet in Boulogne and Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, where
he painted some landscapes. In 1870/71, he served in the French artillery in
the Franco-Prussian War. He enriched his work by introducing elements of plein
air painting. However, he never turned to landscape painting. But the plein
air movement and the influence of impressionism made him renounce on an
official career in the French salons with their academic style.
In 1872, Degas exhibited, together with the Society of French Artists, in a
London show organized by the famous art dealer Durand-Ruel, before
leaving for New Orleans.
In 1873, Degas traveled to North America, where he spent quite some time at
his brother's home in New Orleans. Among the works created in the US is
The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans (1873; Musée Municipal de Pau,
France). This was his only work purchased by a museum during his lifetime.
The following year, Degas participated with
ten paintings in the first exhibition by the Impressionists. Subsequently,
he exposed his paintings in another five Impressionist exhibitions. The last one he
participated in was held in 1886. Afterwards, Degas distanced himself from
this group of artists.
It was only in the 1870s that Degas turned to the subjects which make
his fame today: opera and ballet, dancers and singers. He did not only portray what
went on on
stage, but included unusual subjects such as teenage ballet dancers in
rehearsal rooms as well as scenes of everyday life, including washerwomen,
subjects ignored by the French academic art scene of his time.
unmarried Degas had a penchant for girls and young women. But even his
intimate bathing scenes, although with a voyeuristic touch, do not
fulfill sexual desires, have no touch of eroticism. Instead, they are innocent and delicate, even when
they depict reality. Degas became a master of the intimate moments and
details such as ballet rehearsals, baths or café scenes. His paintings and
pastels often capture the moment. In this, he was in advance to the then
still young art of photography.
It was only in the 1870s that Degas' use of Japanese woodprint and other
graphic techniques became visible in his style, e.g. juxtapositions of near
and far planes.
Degas enthusiasm for opera and ballet went beyond teenage dancers since the
composers Emmanuel Chabrier and Ernest Reyer were among his circle of
friends. Although amorous affairs by members of the upper class with poor
young dancers were quite common at his time, there is no evidence that Edgar
Degas ever had such a liaison.
As his family went through financial troubles, Degas had to live from the
money he made as an artist. In 1874, his father died. In order to pay off the
inherited debt, Degas was forced to sell parts of his art collection. As a result
of the financial difficulties, Degas began creating monotypes, a
quick way to create graphic art and ideal to be used in combination with
pastels. In 1881, he created my favorite Degas
bronze by far, the only sculpture he exhibited during his lifetime, the
Little Dancer, aged fourteen.
In the 1880s Degas' eyesight was failing.
In 1889, he went blind. Therefore, he turned to sculpture and created some
seventy works of nudes, dancers and horses. In 1908, he gave up art
In 1912, Rouart auctioned off his painting Danseuses à la barre,
which sold for the highest price ever paid in France at that time for a
Edgar Degas died on September 27, 1917 at the age of 83. He is buried in the Cimetière du Nord, commonly called Cimetière de Montmartre.
Marjorie B. Cohn, Jean Sutherland Boggs: Degas at Harvard. Yale
University Press, October 10, 2005, 127 p. Get the exhibition catalogue from
Degas at Harvard
Everybody associates Edgar Degas with Paris, ballet dancers, horse races, etc.
Only a few initiated people will associate this artist with Harvard, Cambridge,
Massachusetts. However, Harvard University and its art museums played a key role
in understanding, popularizing, collecting and exhibiting the works of Edgar Degas.
The Harvard University Art Museums own one of America's best collections of
works by Edgar Degas. The Fogg Art Museum, The Houghton Library and Harvard's
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C. present more
than 60 works by the artist at Harvard's Arthur M. Sackler Museum until November
In 1911, the Fogg was the world's first museum to organize an exhibition
exclusively dedicated to Edgar Degas. It remained the only monographic
exhibition during the artist's lifetime.
A key figure in the relationship between Harvard and the work
of Degas was Paul J. Sachs (1878-1965). He was a financier and partner of
the Goldmann Sachs firm, when, at the age of 37, he ended his promising career at Wall
Street in order to dedicate himself to the arts and collecting. Sachs became professor of fine arts at Harvard
and associate director of the Fogg. He collected some 22 works by Degas,
which, over the years, he gave or bequeathed to Harvard. By his teaching and
enthusiasm for the French artist, he inspired his students, many of which became future
scholars, collectors, curators
and museum directors. Some of them also bequeathed works by Degas to other museums,
e.g. in Detroit and Philadelphia.
One Harvard student, Eugenia Parry (Janis), "broke scholarly ground with her
exhibition and catalogue raisonné of Degas' monotypes in 1968, which were based
on her dissertation research..." Another Harvard student, Charles W. Millard,
completed his doctoral thesis on Degas' sculpture in 1971. He presented his
research to the public three years later in connection with an exhibition in
Dallas. In 1976, Millard published a catalogue raisonné of the Degas sculptures.
Among the exciting works by Degas at Harvard is the oil painting Interior
(c. 1874). Sachs' former student Henry McIlhenny had bought it in 1936, only
four days after Sachs himself had taken it "on approval" for the Fogg, but could
not raise the purchase prize and had to return it to the dealer. Sachs wrote to
McIlhenny: "Three cheers and congratulations that you have acquired one of the
greatest pictures of the 19th century."
A superficial observer might overlook Interior as an ordinary bedroom
painting. However, a closer like reveals an unusual subject: A man and a young
women, partly undressed, are part of a story-telling picture. In 1912, the
painting was entitled in a much more revealing way in the first published
monograph on Edgar Degas by Paul-André Lemoisne: Le Viol (The Rape).
Another masterpiece by Degas at Harvard is the sculpture Little Dancer,
aged fourteen, modeled around 1880. Another version of this sculpture is
on display at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny, Switzerland. The
Little Dancer is by far my favorite bronze by Degas. The unnumbered copy at
Harvard was a 1943 bequest to the Fogg Art Museum by Grenville L. Winthrop
(class of 1885), who had purchased it in
New York City in
The catalogue cover of Degas at Harvard shows a portrait of Alice
Villette (1872). The painting was bought by C. Chauncey Stillman (class of
1898) in 1925 for the Fogg. Stillman was a member of the Fogg's Visiting
Committee and established the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry.
Other masterpieces at Harvard include Two Dancers Entering The Stage (c.
1877-78) and The Rehearsal (c. 1873-78). The first is a pastel over
monotype in black ink, another bequest by Grenville, the second an oil painting,
a bequest from the Collection of Maurice Wertheim (class of 1906).
The catalogue Degas at Harvard contains essays by Harvard curator
Marjorie Benedict John and the Degas scholar Jean Sutherland Boggs, a former
pupil of Paul Sachs. They examine the history of the acquisition of the Degas
working, teaching and exhibiting collection at Harvard as well as the key
figures in this enterprise. They also point out to the key role played by
Harvard and its scholars and pupils in the understanding of Degas.
Richard Kendall et al.: Degas and the Little Dancer. Yale University
Press, 1998, 192 p. Catalogue for an exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha,
in 1998. Get the book from