“Everyone has talent at twenty-five. The difficulty is to have it at fifty.”
The art world is commemorating Edgar Degas’ 178th birthday. I have always wondered about our preoccupations with birthdays, because there are so many other days to celebrate. Perhaps it speaks to beginnings, the prelude to being, or maybe it’s simply the joy and freshness of new life.
Edgar Hilaire Germain Degas was born in 1834, Paris, France. To place this time in history, consider that the French Revolution took place in 1789 – 1799, the Battle of Waterloo and defeat of Napoleon occurred on June 18, 1815 followed shortly thereafter by the restoration of the Bourbon King Louis XVIII to the throne. But not all were happy. The republican uprisings occurred in Lyons (1831), in Paris (1832) and again in both cities in 1834, the very same year that welcomed our birthday boy.
Edgar Degas was wealthy, the son of a banker. His father, wanting a good life for his son, suggested the legal profession. Degas attempted the legal studies in 1853, but his longing to immerse himself in the art world prevailed. The École des Beaux-Arts in Paris was a welcome relief to academia. Soon he was travelling to Italy to see (and copy) the masterpieces by Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. From that point on, there was no turning back.
In 1862, Degas met Édouard Manet, in front of a Velazquez, on one of many his trips to the Lourve. This was his introduction to the future Impressionists. Edgar Degas is usually categorized with the Impressionists. Indeed, he exhibited with them in seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions. His classical training and his dislike of painting directly from nature set him apart from the rest. But he shared Monet’s love for Japanese prints, which encouraged him to try-out new perspectives.
Degas’ financial background held him in good stead. He controlled the value of his work by only signing those pieces which he sold or exhibited. His subjects were from his high-born circle of influence: ballet rehearsals, opera houses, and race courses. His wealth also allowed him to travel extensively: 1) With his brother, to New York and New Orleans in 1872-1873 and 2) To Spain, in 1880 where he etched with Pissarro and Cassatt.
Degas suffered from failing eyesight from the mid 1870s. This did not stop him. As a work-around, he took up photography at 61, experimented with pastels, and created small sculptures of dancers and horses . We lost him on September 27th, 1917, at the age of 83, but his dancers live on in timeless splendour.