Degas’ Stylistic Development in Representation of Female Subjects

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Degas’ stylistic development in representation of female subjects

More than three quarters of Degas’ works, including his paintings, drawings, pastels, prints and sculptures, comprise of images of women. Degas, similarly to a scientific researcher, investigated the female form through a plethora of representations, ranging from his early and rather reserved portraits of relatives to the laundresses and cabaret singers of his Impressionist years. Moreover, he was even dubbed to have been obsessed by the pursuit of the female image the causes for which were traced back to his childhood years when he lost his mother at the age of 14 and to his later years when he showed an ambivalent attitude towards marriage and had a reputation for misogyny.

Edgar-Hilaire-Germain De Gas, determined to pursue his talent in art rather than continuing the family business and becoming a banker, was enrolled in the studio of Louis Lamothe, a former pupil of Ingres. Thus, he was greatly influenced by the Ingristes; however, a great contribution to his stylistic development could be assigned to his regular visits to the Louvre where he was copying works of the great Italian masters and was poring over artists such as Mantegna, Duerer and Rembrandt. The success of his works was mainly due to the fact that he was learning from the great masters without imitating them. He was following their principles and in the same time trying to produce something completely different. Moreover, Degas spent a great part of his early artistic years in Italy where he grew to be a sensitive, highly impressionable, and intelligent young man, as can be inferred from the entries in his diary.

The simplicity of the line in his works was to be learned from the early quattrocento, the dignity of form and his excellence of modeling from Pontormo and Andrea del Sarto. Degas’ colors were never flamboyant, but rather subdued and never overexpressed as neither of the other elements of his works.

Initially he had the idea of becoming a painter of history, but rather quickly he discovered that portraits are his true passion. In contrast to the Italian masters who stressed on the studio formality, Degas’ portraits revealed an intimate and natural aspect of his subjects. Similar to a psychologist, he uncovered the interior life and personal character of his sitters. Moreover, he never did his paintings at once, but rather elaborately constructed them on the ground of series of preliminary sketches and drawings.

Another aspect in Degas’ art is the element of the triumphant at that time in France social class of the bourgeoisie. With his wealth and noble connections in Italy, Degas was dubbed by Duranty to be “on the way of becoming the painter of high life”. Thus, he was inspired to represent this distinctive and aristocratic social class in its intrinsic and most natural aspects. However, the war and the Commune after 1870 disturbed Degas immensely and he sought for new subjects for his paintings and new places of inspiration. Similarly to Manet, Renoir, Bazille, Monet and Pissarro, Degas found his new inspiration not in the long-dead Romans and Greeks but in the vivaciousness of the modern life and particularly in the opera and the dance. However, in contrast to Pissarro and Monet who preached surrender to nature and depiction of what your eyes see, Degas believed there was more to art than that. For him the mind seized sensations from nature, but processed them and refined them in an individual manner. Hence, an artist builds an artwork mentally through patient observation.

Degas’ gradual stylistic development in conveying the notion of motion in his paintings can be easily followed. In his first canvas of ballet dancers, The Dance Foyer at the Opera (The Louvre, Paris, 1872), he is rather conventional due to his precise drawing, pale colors, and traditional perspective. However, he studied carefully his new subjects and even sketched separately each dancer...
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