Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Everso-slightly Erotic Prints of Edgar Degas

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas (1834 –1917) is recognized as a member of the French Impressionist movement. He was known for his strong drawing skills and often chose scenes involving action and movement, yet Degas’ portraits are also known for their psychological isolation. As a printmaker, Degas explored a world of image-making which continues to inspire us with his fluid line, odd compositions influenced by Japanese prints, and eerily isolated characters whom live in their own world unaware that we are watching them.
Born into a wealthy Parisian family, Degas was the oldest of five children. His mother was a Creole from New Orleans(who died when Degas was thirteen years old), and his father was a banker.

Degas, enrolled in the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and graduated in 1853, with a baccalauréat in literature. He went to work in the Louvre Museum, but later enrolled at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris, in November 1853. He quit his law studies two years later, when he met Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and then went to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts.

In July 1856, he traveled to Italy, where he the works of several Italian Renaissance masters. He returned to France in 1859, and started his studio, painting mostly historical subjects. He exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1865, and exhibited annually in the Salon during the next five years, shifting more and more toward contemporary subject matter. The change in his art was due to an influence by Édouard Manet, whom Degas had met in 1864. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, Degas enlisted in the National Guard, but eventually discovered that his eyesight was problematic, and suffered eye problems for the rest of his life.
After the war, in 1872, Degas spent a year in New Orleans, then returned to Paris. His father died in 1874, which forced Degas to sell his family’s home and their art collection to pay off his brother's debts. Dependent for the first time in his life to sell his artwork for income, he produced a lot of work during the next decade. In the mid-1870s he also made etchings, lithographs and monotypes. He was especially fascinated by the painterly qualities of the monotype process, but frequently embellished these printed images with chalk pastel. In fact, many of the pastels Degas produced actually started as monotypes.

The prints seen in this article are mainly singular images, but he explored etching as well. The linear qualities of those prints show his mastery of line and form. His explorations into tone and texture reveal a predilection for surface and luscious built up surfaces, as one would fine in his paintings. I enjoy the tonal qualities of these prints compared with his paintings because he shows that the medium isn’t a deterrent to understanding the environments of his characters. He goes deeply into the image, and presents us with a microcosm of a larger view, and more complex arena. He give us the best part of the total picture, much the same way an Asian painter would select the best part of a landscape to depict rather than fill up the composition with a lot of filler or unncessary information.
Degas joined a group of young artists, called the Impressionists in the mid 1870s. Between 1874 and 1886, the Impressionists mounted eight art shows, of which Degas took a leading role in their organization. He had little in common with some of the group’s members, whom he mocked for painting outdoors. Degas always worked indoors, preferring to work in his studio, either from memory, photographs, or live models. The figure remained his primary subject; his few landscapes were produced from memory or imagination. It was not unusual for him to repeat a subject many times, varying the composition. Degas said, "In art, nothing should look like chance, not even movement". As a conservative, he detested the scandal and publicity generated by the Impressionist’s shows. They eventually disbanded in 1886.
As Degas continued to work and sell his art, he began to amass a large art collection; collecting works by El Greco Manet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Ingres, Delacroix, Daumier and a number of Japanese prints.

Separately, Degas also developed a passion for photography, and he photographed his friends, dancers and nudes, which were used in some of his works.
Although famous for depicting horse races, Degas also chose to depict women at their work and ballet dancers in rehearsal, emphasizing their status as professionals doing a job. His interest in portraiture led Degas to study how a person's social stature or means of employment may be revealed. The prints Degas produced during this period are intimate, voyeuristic, and border at times on the erotic. Women at their toilet was a private, personal time, and Degas lets us inside the room with these women, lets us watch as they wash their hair, and quietly go about their business. Likewise the women dancing in rehearsals between dancing segments are seen fussing over their costumes, and wrapping their slippers in a similar personally attentive fashion. We are like one of the props men peeing at these beauties from behind a curtain or a keyhole. The isolation or separateness from the subject is felt intensely, intensified by dark, shadowy spaces.
Personally, Degas was known for his wit, which could be cruel. He once fired a model upon learning she was Protestant. Degas became an anti-Semite by the mid-1890s, and he broke off all relations with his Jewish friends and artists. He even refused to use models who he believed might be Jewish. As he got older, Degas blamed his inability to finish works based upon his poor eyesight. He ceased working in 1912, as his eyesight was nearly gone. He never married, and spent the last years of his life walking the streets of Paris before dying in 1917.
Degas never formally taught art, but he is credited with influencing several artists, including Mary Cassatt, Pablo Picasso and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Degas's works are a part of numerous museum collections, and have been exhibited worldwide. His prints have garnered widespread attention, and serve as classic examples of an artist who loved the female figure, and who chose to present them in their most fragile, intimate moments, with grace and sensuality.

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