he Impressionists exhibited their works in independent shows from 1874 to 1886. A common desire to depart from the standards of the official Salon and create an open forum for artists to show their work united the group. The term "Impressionist" was introduced by the critic Louis Leroy after viewing paintings in the first Impressionist exhibition in April of 1874. Leroy entitled his article in the French periodical Charivari "Exhibition of the Impressionists" and sarcastically defended the new style of painting that ignored details, revealed brushstrokes, and placed unblended colors side by side. He, as well as the majority of the French public, did not consider the works by Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas as art that merited serious attention.
Degas is best known as an Impressionist and was a prominent member, if not the strongest promoter, of the group. He was outspoken about the need for artists to join together and establish a place for themselves as proponents of a new, contemporary artistic sensibility. Degas organized what is now known as the first Impressionist exhibition and planned many of the subsequent shows. He initially called himself and his compatriots "realists," which pointed to their interest in drawing inspiration from their own environments and experiences. The term "impressionist" was adopted later, at the time of the third Impressionist exhibition, despite Degas’s objections to the name. Degas allied himself with other Impressionists, such as Pissarro, met with them at the famous Café Guerbois, and participated in all but one of the eight Impressionist exhibitions.
Degas's summary description of his subjects, in the later images of ballet dancers and women bathing and his experimental and vivid use of color would seem to encourage the use of the label "Impressionist." But while people today would consider him an Impressionist, Degas's work stands apart from such artists as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro. Monet studied the effects of natural light, shadow, and atmosphere and created form by juxtaposing brushstrokes of color, whereas Degas observed laundresses, milliners, and ballet dancers at work and employed unusual perspectives and complex formal structures. While Monet and Renoir preferred plein air painting, or painting-out-of-doors, Degas often worked from memory, sketching from models who posed in his studio.
Although Degas did paint some landscapes, he was known to have thought the subject minor, choosing instead to study the gestures and poses of human figures in interior settings. His work is actually closer to that of Édouard Manet (considered a Realist by art historians rather than an Impressionist), who also depicted ordinary people in contemporary dress or (undress). Degas's portraits share with Manet's an interest in the complexity of human expressions and the articulation of everyday experience.
Subject Matter and Stylistic Characteristics
Degas worked in a wide range of media, including oil, watercolor, chalk, pastel, pencil, etching, and photography. As a young man, he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and copied works of art at the Louvre. He admired the old masters, particularly Renaissance painters, and the more contemporary works of Eugéne Delacroix (1798-1863) and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).
From the mid-1850s through the mid-1870s Degas explored many types of subject matter. He copied works by earlier artists and executed his own history paintings, portraits, and scenes of daily life. Degas eventually ended his efforts at history painting and devoted more attention to portraiture, turning images of relatives and friends into complex psychological studies.
Degas and Naturalist writers such as Émile Zola and the Goncourt brothers were preoccupied with the issue of "realism" in art and literature. When Degas urged his fellow artists to join him in a "realist" endeavor, he was referring to the creation of works grounded in contemporary life and actual experiences. Rather than perpetuate idealized images of mythological figures and historical subjects, he wanted to paint everyday urban scenes.
This interest is reflected in Degas's early work. His interiors and portraits, for example, reveal the ambiguities inherent in human relationships. Many of his paintings of the late 1850s to mid-1860s focus on the tensions between men and women. People in Degas's paintings are portrayed enigmatically; their facial expressions and postures compel the viewer to ask questions about them and the meaning of particular scenarios.
During the 1870s and 1880s Degas focused his attention on subjects that were familiar to him and which reflected his contemporary environment. He painted milliners waiting on bourgeois women, laundresses ironing, and performers at the Opéra. Degas became most famous for his countless images of female dancers practicing backstage. Specifically, he focused on their gestures and poses as they practiced, waited, primped, and stretched in the rehearsal room. Finally, during the latter part of his career, he painted the controversial scenes of women bathing.
As Degas's subject matter became more contemporary, so did his artistic style. Early on, Degas presents people as individuals, whereas works from the mid-1870s on categorize women in particular according to their professions. The laundresses, milliners, and dancers represent types rather than specific individuals. Degas's handling of paint and use of color also become bolder and more experimental.
After 1890, formal concerns are at the forefront of Degas's artistic endeavors. The women bathing are anonymous rather than individualized. Instead of revealing their features and expressions, Degas presents the viewer with abstracted forms, emphasizing the curve of a stooped back or the slope of a shoulder. Degas's collection of repeated poses and postures speaks to his preoccupation with texture, color, and form.