Edgar Degas spent almost all of his eighty-three years in the city of Paris. He was the eldest son of a prosperous banker and decided to abandon the study of law in 1855 to begin his training as an artist in the academic system. The only one out of five children to become a painter, he was something of a renegade in his family. He was a reclusive who spurned publicity of any kind, but nonetheless was known in public as a wit and a brilliant conversationalist.
Within his lifetime, as today, Degas was most celebrated as the painter of one subject: the ballet. Above all the subjects that he treated, whether the early history paintings, the scenes of life in the modern city-race courses and cafes, shopgirls, and laundresses-or the portraits of family and friends that he continued to paint throughout his life, it is the dancer that is now associated with the name of Degas in the popular imagination. The sustained series of dancers and bathers produced in the later years have the quality of a private language, obsessional and irresoluble. Quite different from earlier treatments of the same themes, they lack narrative and spatial definition, any sense of audience and immediate charm. The lonely figures are rendered in colors that are frequently shrill and coarse, while the surface is attacked, scraped and reworked, often with the artist's fingers and thumbs.
Many of Degas' key works are in charcoal on tracing paper or in pastel that is richly textured and layered. In his late works, Degas' freedom of handling can be compared to that of Titian, and with Poussin, whom he used familiarly and affectionately to refer to as le patron'. Artists of his own time looked to Degas for new and fruitful directions, which they themselves could exploit.
Central to Degas's lifelong project, and a vital point of contact with the rising generation, was the depiction of the human figure. Though he valued the landscape more than is generally realized, it was the body in a...
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