French painter and sculptor, whose innovative composition, skillful drawing, and perceptive
analysis of movement made him one of the masters of modern art in the late 19th century.
Degas is usually classed with the impressionists, and he exhibited with them in seven of the
eight impressionist exhibitions. However, his training in classical drafting and his dislike
of painting directly from nature produced a style that represented a related alternative to
Degas was born into a well-to-do banking family on July 19, 1834, in Paris. He studied at the
École des Beaux-Arts under a disciple of the famous French classicist J. A. D. Ingres.
After 1865, under the influence of the budding impressionist movement, he gave up academic
subjects to turn to contemporary themes. But, unlike the impressionists, he preferred to work
in the studio and was uninterested in the study of natural light that fascinated them. He was
attracted by theatrical subjects, and most of his works depict racecourses, theaters, cafés,
music halls, or boudoirs. Degas was a keen observer of humanity—particularly of women, with
whom his work is preoccupied—and in his portraits as well as in his studies of dancers,
milliners, and laundresses, he cultivated a complete objectivity, attempting to catch his
subjects in poses as natural and spontaneous as those recorded in action photographs.
His study of Japanese prints led him to experiment with unusual visual angles and asymmetrical
In the 1880s, when his eyesight began to fail, Degas began increasingly to work in two new
media that did not require intense visual acuity: sculpture and pastel. In his sculpture, as in
his paintings, he attempted to catch the action of the moment, and his ballet dancers and
female nudes are depicted in poses that make no attempt to conceal their subjects' physical
exertions. His pastels are usually simple compositions containing only a few figures.
Degas was not well known to the public, and his true artistic stature did not become evident
until after his death. He died in Paris on September 27, 1917.