Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas, known as Edgar Degas, was born in Paris into a bourgeois family. He was educated at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he met his life-long friends the painter Henri Rouart (1833-1912) and the playwright and novelist Ludovic Halévy (1834-1908). He lost his mother in 1847, at the age of thirteen; her death affected him deeply and left him the eldest of the group of four children. In 1853, he was formally allowed to copy in the Louvre and in the print room at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. He then entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied in the studio of Louis Lamothe (1822-1869), who had been a student and disciple of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Degas met Ingres himself in May of 1855, during the Universal Exhibition, where the latter's Valpinçon Bather was being shown. This encounter made a permanent impression on the young artist. Fleeing academic teaching, he decided to take a long trip to Italy, where he stayed from 1856 to 1859, and came to know and befriend Gustave Moreau.

Upon returning to Paris, he showed work for the first time at the Salon in 1865 (the last time would be in 1870). He was a regular at the Café Guerbois, which was also frequented by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Bazille, Renoir, Fantin-Latour, and Duranty. At the beginning of the 1870s, Degas traveled to London and to New Orleans, and Paul Durand-Ruel began buying his works. Between 1874 and 1886, he participated in the exhibitions of the Société anonyme des artistes, otherwise known as the Impressionist Exhibitions. At first the critics were cautious, but they became more and more encouraging with time, finally responding to his work with enthusiastic praise. During his sixth and penultimate participation in 1881, he exhibited the only sculpture that he ever showed during his lifetime, la Petite Danseuse âgée de 14 ans (The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen). The scandal that the work provoked no doubt did not encourage the artist to show more of them.

Degas' first sculptures date from 1878, but most of them were done toward the end of his career. In fact, they were a way for him to approach form differently in light of his increasing blindness from the 1870s on. "You will not attain truth other than with the aid of modeling because it works as a constraint on the artist that forces him to neglect nothing that counts," he explained to Thiebault-Sisson in 1897. However, when the art critic remarked that he was "as much a sculptor as a painter," the artist replied: "Never! It's only for my own satisfaction that I model animals and people—not to step back from painting or drawing, but to give my paintings and drawings more expression, more ardor, and more life. They're exercises to keep me in shape, nothing more. None of it is done for sale."(Pingeot, Anne and Horvat, Frank, Degas, sculptures, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, 1991, p. 7) Horses, dancers, and women bathing were the principal themes of his works, both pictorial and sculptural. From the end of the 1870s on, collectors fought over Edgar Degas' drawings and paintings.

After 1885 and his acquisition of Ingres' Oedipus and the Sphinx, Degas devoted more and more time to his art collection. Following the first Impressionist exhibit in New York in 1886, Degas' works were acquired by a number of galleries. It was around this time that he did his first landscape monotypes and began working in photography. After the turn of the century, Degas' works were shown extensively in the United States and sought by American collectors. He died in 1917 of a brain aneurysm.

The post-mortem discovery of Edgar Degas' sculptures

It was while making an inventory of works left in his studio that Degas' inheritors, accompanied by his official dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922), discovered "around 150 works scattered throughout the three floors."(Pingeot, Anne and Horvat, Frank, Degas, sculptures, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, 1991, p. 25) The sculptures were badly damaged, and only 80 of them were kept. After consultation with the artist's beneficiaries, the founder Adrien-Aurélien Hébrard (1865-1937) cast bronze editions of 74 of the 80 selected wax sculptures; each edition was composed of 20 copies, numbered "A" to "T." In addition, there were two series: a first reserved for Degas' inheritors (marked "HER.D") and a second reserved for Hébrard himself (marked "HER"). Two final series were discovered later: the "AP" series, carrying the initials of Albino Palazzolo (1883-1976), the head founder at Adrien Hébrard's, and the series known as the "Model," which, according to the art historian John Rewald (1912-1994), was cast by the founder as part of his personal archives. Four series, for the most part complete, are held in the collections of national museums: the A series was bequeathed by the patron and collector Louisine Havemeyer (1855-1929) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1929; in 1930, the Louvre acquired the whole of the P series, which is held today in the Musée d'Orsay; the R series joined the collections of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Denmark in 1948, and the S series entered the collections of the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo in Brazil in 1951.