Monday Lectures

14 December 2020

The Portraits of Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas, Self Portrait, 1863, Gubelkian Foundation, Lisbon

 Edgar Degas (1834-1917), one of the key founders of the Impressionist group in 1873-74, was also the Impressionist painter most committed by taste and classical training to the human figure. Today he is considered one of the greatest portrait painters in the history of art.

 

While preserving conventions he inherited from the old masters – the 15th century Flemish painters, Dürer, Van Dyck or Titian – he was absolutely committed to modernizing the 19th century portrait by adapting it to the new civilization created by the economic and social revolutions of the Paris of his day. Daring spatial compositions, new vantage points, sketchy or unfinished portions in his portraits bring a vitality and immediacy to his depictions, unprecedented in the art of portraiture. From the point of view of content his careful study of contemporary costume and what today we would call “body language”, completely re-define his figures in the context of their time and frequently also in that of their daily lives and intimate or professional environments

 

Degas is also the first portrait painter of the 19th century to drop the conventions of idealizing grace and sentimental femininity for his depiction of women, endowing his female subjects with distinctive and strong personalities that restore to the gender the individuality and psychological weight usually reserved for the depiction of their husbands. Degas is also unusual for never having painted a portrait on commission. Most of his portraits are of family, friends, artistic colleagues, critics and art collectors, hence people that he was linked to intimately or professionally. This gave him the possibility to interpret his sitters with an absolute freedom and entirely according to his own vision, without regard to convention or the need to flatter. The result is one of the most distinctive and powerful galleries of human portraits in the history of art.

 

Edgar Degas, At the Milliner's (Mary Cassatt), 1882, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York