This work will focus on the artist and work of Edward Degas, the nineteenth-century painter, typically known for his illustrations that capture the movements of both dancers and horses in various environments.
The nineteenth century is identified by the social change and reform that occurred and it is this combination of the traditional and the innovative in Degas’ work which will be explored. Degas’ work is associated with the changes in artistic representation of the period – from traditional to innovative – as well as his overt social commentary. Because he was fascinated by photography and its capacity to capture light and motion, much of Degas’ work reflects the hallmarks of that time – invention and experimentation (Kleiner, 2008).
The generation of artists to which Degas and his contemporaries belonged (among whom were Monet, Manet, Renoir and Van Gogh) began to move away from the traditional and idealised images because of their desire to express impressions of landscapes, objects and people that enhanced both mood and movement. Despite this freedom of new impressionist techniques, Degas remained true to his classical training and approached each of his subjects as a technical draughtsman might (Wintle, 2002), which often positions his style as somewhere between impressionist and realist (Growe, 2001).
His observations of the fashionable middle-class café culture of Paris that he contrasts with the often bleakly portrayed dance-hall performers and those who frequented the ballet, brothels, bars and race courses illustrate the many characteristics of the social types found in the fluctuating nineteenth century in Europe (Beaumont,2010). The social, scientific and economic achievements that were taking place at the time are in many ways captured in Degas’ work, making him a true exponent of his generation.
Personality and influences
Edgar Degas, born in France in 1834, was an artist who is best known for his painting. He has become most associated with images of dancers as well as horses, on and off the race track.
His work epitomises the changes in artistic representation of the period from traditional to experimental, and also can be viewed as useful examples of social commentary during an innovative and changing period in history. Further, his work reflects early experimentation with capturing movement and light which was inspired by breakthroughs in photography and attitudes to capturing realism through art. Significantly, his subjects accurately depict historical representations of women’s trades, clothing and social standing.
Historically, the nineteenth century in Europe is viewed as a time when considerable social change was taking place with notable economic and scientific achievements. Degas was part of a group of artists that epitomised this period. Although he was essentially conservative in his political views, he was concerned with the social situation of men and women. (Wintle,2002).
Educational and social reform emerged from observing and analysing the classes and population trends, both domestic and industrial. These became the inspiration for developments in literature, art and science. Many of Degas’ social observations are depicted in his wealth of paintings that focus on performing artists of the time, or simple street or café scenes. In particular, The Absinthe Drinker, 1875-76 and Women on a Café Terrace,1877 (Edgar Degas, Complete Works,2002-2011) show the contrast between both the misery of the working class’s demise into alcoholism and the fashionable, more middle-class café culture. These social types encapsulate many of the people that frequented the ballet, theatres, race courses and even brothels of nineteenth century Europe (Beaumont, 2010).
The nineteenth century heralded the dawn of a new art form with pioneering photographers such as Fox Talbot introducing new processes and methods (Cross, 2001). Colour began to be discussed more in terms of how different tones complemented each other and how some could enhance the different effects of light and dark. Degas, being fascinated by photography, used these patterns of light to great effect when trying to capture specific moments in time, as occurred when taking a photograph (Kleiner, 2008). In 1878 Degas was present when an English photographer, Edward Muybridge, conducted an experiment that would revolutionise capturing movement on film. Degas tried to replicate this in his paintings by using horizontal sequences and diagonal lines, particularly when he painted horses either entering or leaving a picture (Growe, 2001).
Degas is typically associated with the impressionist painters of this period who wanted to express their own impression of nature regardless of prevailing art traditions (Facos, 2011). One of the most popular English painters of the nineteenth century, Joseph Turner, began to abandon his muted romantic idealised landscapes in favour of brightly coloured scenes incorporating bold swirls of light. Traditionalists were being replaced by those who were experimenting with new techniques that reflected a growing scientific awareness of how light could be used to capture moods and movement.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Degas did believe in draughtsmanship and the classical style of drawing and painting and his fascination with figures made him less of a landscape artist and more of a painter of the human form. He preferred to experiment with the artificial light of dance halls, opera houses and rehearsal rooms rather than with natural light (Wintle,2002). His Musicians in the Orchestra, 1872, is a typical example of this type of work (Edgar Degas, Complete Works, 2002–2011).
Beaumont, M (2010) Concise Companion to Realism, John Wiley and Sons, Oxford
Cross, J, M. (2001) Nineteenth-Century Photography: A Timeline, Retrieved from: http://www.victorianweb.org/photos/chron.html (The Victorian Web, 2001).
Edgar Degas, Complete Works, (2002–2011), Retrieved from: http://www.edgar-degas.org (2002-2011)
Facos, M (2011) An Introduction to Nineteenth-Century Art, Taylor and Francis, U.S.A
Growe, B. (2001) Edgar Degas, 1834-1917, Taschen, France
Kleiner, F. (2008) Gardner’s art through the ages, Cengage Learning EMEA, London
Wintle, J. (2002) Makers of nineteenth century culture, Routledge, London