"The Dance Class", 1874, by Edgar Degas (The Met)
Though a principal member of the group known as the impressionists, Edgar Degas claimed he was instead a realist. Indeed, his works reflect careful observation, study, and refinement, not the spontaneous moments of color and light captured by his fellow artists.
Degas aligned himself with both Ingres and Delacroix and was a committed copyist of works in the Louvre. He abandoned unsuccessful early attempts at academic history painting to turn to modern life as his subject—one that offered rich possibilities for his art. His devotion to the themes of the ballet, the racecourse, nightlife, and bathing significantly the expanded the subjects of French genre painting.
A Parisian flaneur like his contemporary Edouard Manet, Degas’s character could be aloof and irascible and his wit biting. Celebrated as a lover of the ballet, theatre and opera were also abiding interests, and he might attend a favorite opera a dozen times. Later in life he became more isolated, retreating to his studio to concentrate on his depictions of nudes. Blindness would force him to use materials he found easier to work with: wax and pastel on paper.
Art historian Bonita Billman examines Degas in the context of the impressionist movement and his colleagues Monet, Pissarro, Cassatt, and others. She explores his work in a variety of media (oil, pastels, prints, monotypes, photography, and sculpture), analyzes his contributions to French impressionist art and posterity, and looks at his role as an art collector of merit.
The program complements the exhibition Degas at the Opera, on view through July 5 at the National Gallery of Art.
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