Painting: Edgar Degas, Woman in the Bath, 1886, Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, Connecticut
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas lived from 1834 to 1917.
Degas has always been a very controversial historical figure. Much of it has to do with his fervent anti-semitism fueled by the much-publicized Dreyfus affair. He was known for his extreme beliefs and the clearly anti-Semitic actions he took throughout his life. He also hated Protestants and was known to fire models when he found out they were. He sounds like a very disagreeable person by any standards. Most researchers and writers look at historical figures through the eyes of our contemporary world judging them by today’s standards instead of the thoughts, beliefs and standards of their time. I am by no means excusing these behaviours, and while these ideas and beliefs are wrong, they were prevalent and commonplace in the society in the artist’s lifetime.
Historians have also called him a woman-hater, yet any researcher can see that he enjoyed the company of women, admired them and had friendships with several prominent women artists such as Suzanne Valadon and Berthe Morisot. One of his most influential friendships was with American artist Mary Cassatt. From the mid-1870s to the mid-1880’s they had a strong friendship and exchanged ideas and techniques with each other.
If we can set aside all of his distasteful behaviours we soon discover that Degas was a very serious artist who worked feverishly all the time. He was obsessed with bettering his work and was known to rework some of his older pieces when given a chance to much to the chagrin of the collectors that lent him the works they had purchased years before. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his personal life was extremely quiet which has a few writers make the claim that he was homosexual. We will never know for sure because he believed in keeping his private life private. Personally, I am more interested in his work than anything that went on in his bedroom.
There are subjects that cannot be done without thinking of and comparing them to Degas. If an artist decides to paint or draw ballet dancers not only are they taking on a difficult subject but they are making a direct reference to the master himself. There are a few artists out there that think that they can do a better job of it but all I have to say is good luck to them! Degas shadow looms large even today! Artist beware!
Another interesting fact that most people may or may not be aware of is the Degas suffered from poor eyesight from about 1870 onwards and at the end of his life he was legally blind by today’s standards. You will never look at a Degas the same way with this knowledge. Known as a superb draftsman who worked in many mediums, he is best known for his innovative works in pastels. Degas set the standards in pastel and pretty much every pastel work since will be compared to his.