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Edgar Degas: Multi-Tasker of Art


Edgar Degas or, more accurately, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, was one of the French Impressionists who defied that group, thereby making him one of the quintessential painters of that “school.” Schools of art, much like schools of thought or even schools of education, limit the artistic mind, if not the mind itself. With Degas, art was his oyster. Filled with independence and self-possession, he uniquely possessed a passion for music, painting, drawing (or drafting), printmaking, and, one might say, for passion in general.

He was innately innovative in a society that was beginning to thrive on the mere notion of innovation; conservative in a society that preparing to abandon the old conventions; and sensual toward his aesthetic art in the way that a sculptor approaches his clay. Indeed, Degas did create sculpture although he is best known for his scenes of Parisian life, particularly his ballet dancers.


Edgar Degas was born in Paris on 19 July 1834 and he died in Paris on 27 September 1917. He remained a Parisian during that prolific lifetime, creating vibrant scenes in Paris while, at the same time, devising unusual, new techniques with the tried-and-true materials of the painter. He found distinct pleasure in solving the ages-old problems that any visual artist faces: how to depict 3-D objects on a flat surface.

The list of his materials is fascinating: ink, pen, pencil, chalk, pastel, charcoal, oil, real hair, water colour, gouache, an ancient form of a non-durable paint called distemper; metallic pigments; as well as combinations of each medium. Surfaces for these materials included a wide assortment of canvases, with varying textures; card stock; silk, ceramic; tile; wood panels; paper; and, eventually, photographic film.


This painter was so inventive that he used the techniques of the Old Masters, many of whom he’d intensely studied, to arrive at iconoclastic forms of his own. Among the French Impressionists, a master technician of materials, design, composition, symmetry, color, line and form — was rare. Degas truly multi-tasked his art.

Part-craftsman, part-artist, part-apprentice, part-disciple (of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio), this Parisian was so much more than a “painter of ballet dancers.” Surveying his aesthetic interests, one might say that he was always in search of new visual mediums through which he could express his creative visions and his highly unusual perspectives, artistic and otherwise.


In this ever-expansive manner, Edgar Degas bridged the gap between the traditional art of academic study (into which he thoroughly immersed himself) and the divergent art forms of the early 20th century. His primary passion for the human form, and for the female body in particular, brought him acclaim, fame, disdain, and a wide range of critics. Being provocative was not perhaps his goal, but Degas tended to arouse the senses through his painting.

Widely celebrated for his depictions of life in Paris, high as well as low life, Degas also mastered the self-portrait, larger portraits, and historical scenes. His works clearly show his love of sensual color and saturated hues, married to his devotion to the severity of line. As a young artist, Degas deeply admired the French portrait painter of Classical line, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; as a maturing artist, he followed the examples set by Eugène Delacroix, the French romantic painter and master of dramatic colour.


Those two artists formed, for Degas, the opposing strains that he had to resolve as a fully-fledged artist. The mature works of Degas present his merging of those two impulses, firm line and forceful tone, almost as if he has composed a magnificent symphony with his paintbrush. The forms are vigorously drawn in brilliant colors. There are in his most wondrous paintings a melodious outpouring of strong lines and dense hues, with the sense of movement, as if Degas heard music while he painted.


There is a balancing act that any artist must perform, and tackle, between line and color, restraint and expression. Degas walked that fine line with finesse and flair.


He stated:


“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.”

This statement takes into account every lesson that the artist must bear in mind each time that he takes pen, paintbrush, pencil or crayon into his hand: Each work demands different lessons. And each work will teach even more lessons to the artist of how much he still does not know about his art.


Edgar Degas was his own best critic, and that role, among all of the roles of this multi-tasking artist, was the most demanding and painstaking one of all.