Degas: The Impressionist that Wasn’t

When is an Impressionist not an Impressionist? Answer: when that Impressionist is Edgar Degas.

The Little Fourteen Year-Old Dancer. Sculpture. Courtesy of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptek, Copenhagen.
The Little Fourteen Year-Old Dancer.
Sculpture.
Courtesy of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptek, Copenhagen.

Degas is considered to be one of the key participants in the Impressionist movement; however, he took objection to this and tried to distance himself as much as possible from being characterised in this manner. Whilst his contemporaries delighted in spontaneity, bright colours, and the effect of light, Degas maintained that his art was completely devoid of spontaneity.

The study of the old masters and an interest in realism and composition, this is what shaped the artist’s work and style. This evolution in personal style and approach to art is reflected in the change in genre from his early to latter works. Initially seeking out a technique to rival that of his revered El Greco (Scene of War in the Middle Ages) his stylistic leanings then noticeably altered to include an interest in portraying events, people, and places in a realist manner.
Character studies were a particular favourite of Degas, L’Absinthe, The Ballet Instructor, and At the Stock Exchange are all notable examples of this. Whilst expressing scorn for those of his contemporaries who chose to work outdoors, Degas chose to concentrate his efforts in the perfection of many mediums. Not only content to master oil work, the artist applied himself to the use of pastel, etching, photography, drawing, and sculpture. The Little Fourteen Year-Old Dancer was the sole sculpture which he exhibited during his lifetime, and could perhaps be said to be a culmination of his studies, drawings, paintings, and examination of individual character.

Degas always insisted that to be an artist one must live alone. True or not, this belief translated in his attitude regarding his inclusion by critics in the Impressionist group, and he tried as much as possible to distance his work from theirs. However, it is undeniable that Degas was a true master of his craft, within the Impressionist movement or without.

To learn more about the man and the artist, be sure to visit the Ny Carlsberg Glyptek, Copenhagen for the current exhibition Degas’ Method. On display until the 1 September, this is one exhibition not to be missed. The perfect addition for all your Degas-inspired research is Nathalia Brodskaya’s Degas. Be sure to pick up a copy!

– Fiona Torsch

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