Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was a French artist who is most celebrated for his scenes of contemporary life: he depicted ballerinas, laundresses, women in millinery shops, and those at the bottom of Parisian society. Although he preferred to call himself a “Realist” or an “Independent”, Degas exhibited his paintings with the Impressonists, and is often grouped with them. His artwork formed a bridge between academic tradition and early 20th century avant-garde, and had influence on the likes of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
Here’s our pick of ten of Edgar Degas’s most famous paintings.
The Bellelli Family (1858-67)
Painted sometime between 1858 and 1867, this family portrait depicts relatives of Degas who lived in Italy. It shows his paternal aunt Laure, her husband Gennaro Bellelli and their two daughters Giula (right of Laure) and Giovanna (left of Laure). Laure is dressed in mourning, grieving for her father Hilaire, who died in 1858 and whose portrait is shown on the wall behind her.
This painting has been noted for capturing the tension that existed within the Bellelli family at the time – when Degas first arrived at their residence, they were living in Florence as Gennaro had been exiled from Naples after the defeat of Italian Revolution in 1848. Laure missed her family in Naples, and also confided in Edgar Degas about having marital problems.
This familial strain is conveyed with the distance between Mrs and Mr Bellelli, who has his back turned to the viewer. Similarly, there seems to be division between the daughters – Laure has her arm around Giovanna, who adopts a similar severe facial expression to her mother, whereas Giula is a pace or two away from her mother, and seems to leaning towards her father, yet with one leg poised on her mother’s side. Although nobody is looking at the viewer, nobody is making eye contact either.
A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers (1865)
Art historians cannot be completely sure, but is it believed that the woman depicted in this portrait is the wife of Degas’s school friend Paul Valpinçon, who the artist often visited in his country house. The woman painted has an abstracted gaze, is not on the central axis, and has been abruptly cropped on her left side, with the bouquet of flowers taking up more room on the canvas than her. These unorthodox features of the portrait can be attributed to Degas’s desire to show individuals in an everyday, candid manner in his artwork. He later wrote in a notebook in 1869 to “make portraits of people in familiar and typical positions”.
Monsieur and Madame Édouard Manet (1868-69)
This double portrait depicts the artist and friend of Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, and his wife Suzanne Manet. It has attracted attention because the canvas is slashed from top to bottom through Madame Manet. Based on written accounts by those who knew Manet and Degas, art historians believe that Degas gave the portrait to Manet, who later slashed it because he did not like how Suzanne was depicted, or potentially because he was fighting with his wife.
Degas later saw the slashed painting at the Manet residence, and, infuriated, took the painting back and intended to restore Suzanne. However, as we can see from the state of painting, he never got around to doing it. His friendship with Manet was also particularly soured by this incident.
Much like his artworks of woman bathing and drying (such as After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself), Degas seems to take on a somewhat voyeuristic perspective in this painting, as if he has depicted a private moment.
Degas also produced numerous other portraits of Édouard Manet in various mediums, including a bust-length etched portrait (1864-65).
The Dancing Class (c.1870)
The Dancing Class was the first of Degas’s many paintings to depict a dance class – a subject that he became infatuated with. However, when he made this particular painting, he did not yet have privilege to go backstage at the Paris Opéra, so he had the subjects come to his studio to pose instead.
At the bottom left of the painting, Degas has painted in a watering can, which seems to have a similar shape to that formed by the by the violin and the player’s arm. A watering can also appears in other of his ballet dancer paintings – including The Ballet Class (below) and Dancers Practicing at the Barre – in which the can’s shape is mimicked by the dancers. The watering can wasn’t a random object; they were used in ballet studios to sprinkle water on the floor to stop dust from forming under the dancers’ feet. The Dancing Class was displayed at the first Impressionist Exhibition in 1874.
The Ballet Class (1871-74)
This is probably the most famous of Edgar Degas’s paintings of ballet dancers, and depicts the end of a class. Again, Degas has painted in a watering can (bottom left), which seems to provide a visual analogy for the shape made by the ballerina in front of it with hand on her hip. Some critics interpret this watering can, as well as those in his other paintings, as an allusion to the artifice of the dancers’ postures.
The man with the walking stick is the ballet master Jules Perrot, who was a friend of the painter and once a dancer himself. In this particular composition, his rigid form and his seemingly cumbersome stick provide contrast to the elegance of the dancers.
There exists a variant of The Ballet Class housed in the Met that bears some slight differences. For example, the watering can is replaced by a music stand and double bass; the floorboards are horizontal instead of diagonal; the ballet master is placed further to the right; the room itself has a less elaborate design and the positions of the dancers has been rethought. (The painting shown above is held by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.)
Foyer de la Danse (1872)
This painting depicts dancers in the foyer de la danse at the Paris Opera, which was housed at Rue Le Peletier before that building was destroyed in a fire in 1873. Le foyer de la danse was essentially a greenroom for the dancers, and was frequented by wealthy men who paid for a subscription to the Opera that also allowed them backstage privileges. These men were known as abonnés (“subscribers”).
The Opera was at the heart of upper-class social life in Paris, and just about every well-to-do Parisian man would have been an abonné. Although Edgar Degas only became an abonné himself in the 1880s, he was able to have backstage visits organised by his friends in the Opera, including one he had in its orchestra. He also took inspiration for his ballet paintings from watching performances in the audience and having dancers pose for him in his studio.
A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873)
Between November 1872 and February 1873, Edgar Degas visited relatives in New Orleans. During this stay, he completed 18 paintings, of which the most famous is A Cotton Office in New Orleans.
The setting of the painting is believed to be the cotton offices of Michel Musson, Degas’s maternal uncle, who is painted in the foreground inspecting a sample of cotton. Degas has also depicted his brothers René (reading a newspaper) and Achille (leaning on the windowsill, on the left) and Musson’s business partners John E. Livaudais (near the right edge of the canvas in a black waistcoat, looking over the ledgers) and James S. Prestidge (seated on a high stool behind René). William Bell, another of Musson’s sons-in-law (René Degas was also married to one of Musson’s daughters) is depicted in the centre of the canvas showing cotton to a customer.
The painting was first shown to the public at the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876 and purchased two years later by the French city of Pau for their fine arts museum – this made A Cotton Office the first piece Degas sold to a French museum and the first Impressionist piece sold to a museum.
The realism of Degas’s artwork is perhaps at its grittiest in his famous painting L’Absinthe, also known as Dans un café (“In a Café”). The woman, slouching in her seat whilst staring emptily into space, is implied to be a prostitute with her choice of clothing and her location – a bar named La Nouvelle Athènes, where women of the night, alongside bohemian intellectuals, often frequented. The man sat beside her also has a vacant stare, and is dressed untidily. Despite their physical proximity, the two appear absorbed in their own personal isolation.
On the table before the woman is a glass of absinthe, a very strong sprit that was popular across Europe in the late 19th century and associated with many social problems, eventually being banned in 1915 in France.
Despite its realism, L’Absinthe was staged and created in Degas’s studio. It was posed for by Ellen Andrée, an actress and model who was also painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir; and Marcellin Desboutin, a printmaker and painter. Despite the models being relatively well-off, especially Desboutin, their reputations were damaged by the painting: the public now believed them to be a prostitute and a vagabond, and Degas had to state that they were not alcoholics.
Indeed, the painting was very controversial, especially when it was exhibited in London in 1893. Many English critics felt that it wasn’t appropriate to depict such degradation in painting, whilst others believed that it was a necessary warning against absinthe and its dangers.
La Place de la Concorde (c.1876)
This painting depicts two of Degas’s friends – writer Daniel Halevy (left) and aristocrat Vicomte Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic (right) with his two daughters – crossing the famous Parisian square, Place de la Concorde. Following the fall of Berlin in 1945, Russian “trophy brigades” brought back to the Soviet Union artwork that had been stolen by the Nazis, as well as some pieces that were in private collections. The latter was the case with La Place de la Concorde, which was previously owned by German collector Otto Gerstenberg. After having been assumed missing or destroyed for about fifty years, the painting resurfaced in 1995 in the Russian State Hermitage Museum, where it is still kept today as property of the Russian Federation.
In the painting, Degas has strategically placed the hat of the Vicomte so that it hides a statue in the square known as the ‘Strasbourg Statue’, which was built in memorial of the French lives lost during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), when the Germans annexed Alsace-Lorraine. Like other Impressionist artists, Degas had chosen not to reference the recent destruction and loss of territory and life in his artwork.
The Millinery Shop (1879-86)
At the time, hats were a symbol of social status for upper-class women, and were sold in both milliners (shops dedicated to hats) and larger department stores known as grands magasins. Edgar Degas was known to be interested in women’s fashion and shopping, and artisan manufacturing. In particular, he was fascinated by hats and millenary, and completed many more artworks on these themes.
In The Millinery Shop, it is unclear whether the woman depicted is an employee – potentially the shopkeeper or a shopgirl – or whether she is a client. Her olive dress with its fur-trimmed collar suggests that she is well-to-do, and is therefore a client. However, her gloves could be interpreted as sewing gloves worn by milliners, or possibly kid gloves – gloves made from fine kid leather that were worn by the rich. Similarly, her lips are also pursed, which could imply that she is holding between them a pin that she is about to place on the hat to apply the finishing touches. Although she is not wearing a hat, which would otherwise establish her as a client, she could between trying on hats.