A Closer Look At… Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Edgar Degas, The Tub 1886

Most notable for his paintings of the ballet, horse races and women going about their daily routines, Edgar Degas has long been considered to be at the forefront of Impressionist painting. Born in Paris to a wealthy family, Degas studied at the École des Beaux-Arts where he learnt the fine technical skills of traditional painting. However, Degas soon developed a deceptively casual composition away from the traditional modes of painting, something that was considered to be very daring for the time.

Degas’ novel use of perspective and pictorial structure make his works appear spontaneous within a period where photography threatened the future of the artist. His odd manipulation of the picture plane, including cropping the image mid-limb, only furthers his intention of creating a fluid sense of movement in Parisian life. Degas’ images of women washing in bathtubs appear to be ‘fly-on-the-wall’ insights into mundane yet extremely intimate and private instants. However, these scenes are far from the fleeting moment that they appear. Degas had bathtubs installed into his studio in order to capture the desired moment with utmost precision and control, and his scenes of horse races are believed to be based upon wooden props.

Degas was a very close friend of Manet- a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. Others involved with the influential painting group include Renoir, Cezanne and Pissarro. Although Degas took part in the first Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, he despised the term ‘Impressionism’ and preferred to consider himself as a Realist. His choice of subject matter demonstrates a deliberate rejection of conventional beauty, as he focuses on atypical treatments of 19th century life. Although he experimented with light, a quality attributed to the Impressionists, Degas preferred the artificial light that came from indoor scenes.  Through closely studying the opera and ballet, he managed to accurately record the manners and movements of contemporary society- something that had never before been considered to be a suitable topic for ‘high art’.

Degas’ images certainly contain a voyeuristic air about them. The viewer is plunged into a ‘peeping Tom’ position, peering over the shoulders of unaware (often nude) women going about their daily routines. One may even consider these women to be ‘naked’ as opposed to ‘nude’- stripped of their dignity and laid bare for all to see. Degas has been highly criticised as being a misogynist and even slightly perverted. Yet if we consider Degas’ obsessive studies of women through more sympathetic eyes, we may even be able to consider him to be the opposite of a misogynist; perhaps Degas was in fact praising the female form. Renowned for his sexual abstinence, Degas’ soft pastels and gentle line could in fact point to a sheer fascination and appreciation of womanliness.


Zosia Gamgee

Leave a Reply