As Nada pointed out, Degas is generally categorized as an Impressionist. However, he diverged from many of his Impressionist contemporaries in significant ways.
Unlike artists like Monet and Renoir, who preferred painting en plein air, Degas opted for the controlled environment of his studio. He was also meticulous in his creative process, often sketching his compositions before painting them on canvas. Despite being commonly associated with the Impressionist movement, Degas identified himself more as a Realist or an Independent, and he didn’t readily embrace the Impressionist label.
Table of Contents
- How Was Edgar Degas Different From Other Impressionists?
- Edgar Degas – The Reluctant Impressionist
- Related Questions
How Was Edgar Degas Different From Other Impressionists?
When one thinks of Impressionism, the radiant landscapes of Claude Monet or the dappled light in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s portraits might come to mind. However, not all artists within this groundbreaking 19th-century art movement followed the same creative compass.
One such enigma was Edgar Degas, a Paris-born artist whose approach to Impressionism was markedly different from his peers.
Here are some ways that Edgar Degas Was different from other impressionists during his time
Working Indoors Vs. Outdoors: An Artistic Choice
Unlike many of his contemporaries who celebrated ‘plein air’ (outdoor) painting, Degas preferred the controlled environment of his studio.
Monet, Renoir, and other Impressionists often painted “en plein air,” capturing the effects of natural light and atmosphere directly onto their canvases. Degas, in contrast, was meticulous and exacting in his work.
In reflecting upon this, Edgar Degas said:
Degas often made detailed drawings before painting, ensuring each element was carefully considered and placed. This systematic approach was quite the opposite of his peers’ spontaneous, almost effervescent technique.
This in-studio work gave him greater control over lighting conditions, allowing for more academic rigor in portraying his subjects.
Modern Subjects, Traditional Techniques
Yet, despite his unique method, Degas was a pivotal figure within the Impressionist movement. He was one of its founders and participated in almost all its exhibitions.
Degas found common ground with the Impressionists in their shared interest in modern, everyday life. While Monet painted haystacks and water lilies, Degas immortalized ballet dancers, horse races, and scenes from urban life.
His painting “At the Races: Before the Start” is an exquisite example. It captures the restless activity of horses and their jockeys, set against a background of lush fields.
In speaking of all his paintings of the dancers, Edgar Degas said:
In this quote, Edgar Degas shows us how organized he was with his artwork, period. He didn’t paint anything. He thought it through.
Unlike his peers, who were more fluid in their brushwork, Degas leaned towards clean lines and meticulous detailing, reminiscent of his academic training. His formal technique captured contemporary scenes, thus blending the new and the old singularly.
The Influence Of Photography
Another aspect that set Degas apart was his profound interest in the then-emerging field of photography. He was mainly influenced by the pioneering work of Eadweard Muybridge, whose sequential photographs of a galloping horse substantially impacted Degas’s depictions of movement.
Muybridge’s revolutionary work, published in Paris in 1874, offered an analytical look at motion, allowing artists to understand the dynamics of natural actions in a previously impossible way.
Degas embraced this new technology as an additional tool for study and analysis rather than a threat to traditional art forms. While other artists viewed photography with suspicion or indifference, Degas used it as a supplementary lens to observe and portray the world.
It’s also worth noting that his choice of subjects, like the theater and ballet, lent themselves well to the ‘freeze-frame’ quality that photography offered.
Edgar Degas – The Reluctant Impressionist
Interestingly, Degas himself was ambivalent about being labeled an Impressionist. He preferred to call himself a “Realist” or “Independent.” This self-identification resonates with his art, which often seems like a synthesis of traditional academic art and modern subject matter.
While he did share the Impressionist interest in capturing fleeting moments of contemporary life, his way of rendering these moments was far removed from the free brushstrokes and color theories often associated with Impressionism.
Degas’s focus on indoor scenes, particularly those of theaters and cafés, was another divergence. He took advantage of artificial light to enhance the contours and forms of his figures, adding a layer of drama and intensity.
This approach showcased his academic roots, which never entirely left him, even as he ventured into avant-garde territories.
Edgar Degas was undoubtedly a central figure in the Impressionist movement, but his path was uniquely his own. Whether through his preference for studio work over plein-air painting, his meticulous pre-drawing, his modern-day subjects rendered through academic techniques, or his early adoption of photographic ideas, Degas charted a course that set him apart from his contemporaries.
His unwillingness to fully embrace the label ‘Impressionist’ is perhaps the most telling testament to his individuality. Degas was an artist caught between two worlds—the traditional and the modern, the academic and the innovative—and precisely this tension makes his work so compelling.
Through his distinct approach, Degas expanded the boundaries of Impressionism, proving that even within a revolutionary movement, there is room for diverse voices and visions.
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