Edgar Degas, in full Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, De Gas later spelled Degas, (born July 19, 1834, Paris, France—died September 27, 1917, Paris), French painter, sculptor, and printmaker who was prominent in the Impressionist group and widely celebrated for his images of Parisian life. Degas’s principal subject was the human—especially the female—figure, which he explored in works ranging from the sombre portraits of his early years to the studies of laundresses, cabaret singers, milliners, and prostitutes of his Impressionist period. Ballet dancers and women at their toilette would preoccupy him throughout his career. Degas was the only Impressionist to truly bridge the gap between traditional academic art and the radical movements of the early 20th century, a restless innovator who often set the pace for his younger colleagues. Acknowledged as one of the finest draftsmen of his age, Degas experimented with a wide variety of media, including oil, pastel, gouache, etching, lithography, monotype, wax modeling, and photography. In his last decades, both his subject matter and technique became simplified, resulting in a new art of vivid colour and expressive form, and in long sequences of closely linked compositions. Once marginalized as a “painter of dancers,” Degas is now counted among the most complex and innovative figures of his generation, credited with influencing Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and many of the leading figurative artists of the 20th century.
From his beginnings, Degas seemed equally attracted to the severity of line and to the sensuous delights of colour, echoing a historic tension that was still much debated in his time. In Italy he consciously modeled some drawings on the linear restraint of the Florentine masters, such as Michelangelo, although he gradually acknowledged the lure of the Venetian painters, such as Titian, and their densely hued surfaces. Characteristically, the young Degas developed a near reverence for Ingres, the 19th-century champion of Classical line, while almost guiltily imitating Eugène Delacroix, who was the leading proponent of lyrical colour in the century and considered to be Ingres’s antithesis. Many of the pictures of Degas’s maturity grew out of a confrontation between these impulses, which arguably found resolution in the vigorously drawn and brilliantly coloured pastels of his later years.