Portrait de Madame Gaujelin, 1867, Pastel & pencil on two joined sheets of paper mounted on board, 45x33 cm
Born on July 19, 1834, in Paris, France, Edgar Degas went on to study at the École des Beaux-Arts and became renowned as a stellar portraitist, fusing Impressionistic sensibilities with traditional approaches. Both a painter and sculptor, he enjoyed capturing female dancers and played with unusual angles and ideas around centering. His work influenced several major modern artists, including Picasso.
Edgar Degas was born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas on July 19, 1834, in Paris, France. His father, Auguste, was a banker, and his mother, Celestine, was an American from New Orleans. Their family were members of the middle class with nobler pretensions. For many years, the Degas family spelled their name "de Gas"; the preposition "de" suggesting a land-owning aristocratic background which they did not actually have.
As an adult, Edgar Degas reverted back to the original spelling. Degas came from a very musical household; his mother was an amateur opera singer and his father occasionally arranged for musicians to give recitals in their home. Degas attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, a prestigious and rigorous boys' secondary school where he received a classical education.
Degas also displayed a remarkable skill for drawing and painting as a child, a talent encouraged by his father, who was a knowledgeable art lover. In 1853, at the age of 18, he received permission to "copy" at the Louvre in Paris. (During the 19th century, aspiring artists developed their technique by attempting to replicate the works of the masters.) He produced several impressive copies of Raphael as well, studying the work of more contemporary painters such as Ingres and Delacroix.
In 1855, Degas gained admission into the Ecole Des Beaux-Art in Paris. However, after only one year of study, Degas left school to spend three years traveling, painting and studying in Italy. He painted painstaking copies of the works of the great Italian renaissance painters Michelangelo and da Vinci, developing a reverence for classical linearity that remained a distinguishing feature of even his most modern paintings.
Upon returning to Paris in 1859, Degas set out to make a name for himself as a painter. Taking a traditional approach, he painted large portraits of family members and grand historical scenes such as The Daughter of Jephtha, Semiramis Building Babylon and Scene of War in the Middle Ages. Degas submitted these works to the all-powerful Salon, a group of French artists and teachers who presided over public exhibitions. It had very rigid and conventional ideas of beauty and proper artistic form, and received Degas's paintings with measured indifference.
In 1862, Degas met fellow painter Edouard Manet at the Louvre, and the pair quickly developed a friendly rivalry. Degas grew to share Manet's disdain for the presiding art establishment as well as his belief that artists needed to turn to more modern techniques and subject matter.
By 1868, Degas had become a prominent member of a group of avant-garde artists including Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley, who gathered frequently at the Café Guerbois to discuss ways in which artists could engage the modern world.