Paintings by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was traditionally a trained painter, who, as an aspiring young artist, became a member of the group around Edouard Manet.

A superb draughtsman and a master of bold compositions, Edgar Degas was able to impose a sense of immediacy on his work, which became particularly evident in his famous paintings of dancers, who were the subject of over half of his collected work.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas liked to cut off figures in his compositions to give the impression of spontaneous observation in his paintings. He also worked with lines of vision and asymmetry to achieve this effect.

Although he worked in various media -- including bronze -- pastels became his chosen medium in his old age. Learn more about Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's Impressionist techniques and his life's work on the following pages.

  • Visit to a Museum: Bold compositions bring two women's visit to a museum to life in this Degas Impressionist painting from the late 1870s.
  • Portrait of Thérèse Degas: This Impressionist painting of the artist's sister shows Degas's dedication to and talent for precisely presenting his subjects as they were.
  • Horses Before the Stands: Learn why every aspect of Degas's racecourse paintings was thoroughly modern -- from the subject matter to the composition.
  • The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans: This extremely detailed Impressionist painting, which features several members of Degas's family, wonderfully captures a moment in time.
  • Women in Front of a Café, Evening: Degas, for the most part, only depicted Parisian life. See modern, everyday Parisian life in this Impressionist painting.
  • The Star (L'Étoile): Degas sketched this famous Impressionist painting while sitting in the ballet looking down on the stage.
  • Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando: It took great precision and much preparation for Degas to successfully capture the excitement felt by circus audiences when watching the stunt portrayed in this Impressionist painting.
  • Examen de Dance (Dance Examination): Pastels were especially suited for Degas's dance works, as they allowed the artist to work swiftly and in the moment. See his use of pastels in this painting.
  • Little Dancer of Fourteen Years: A master of the gracefulness of the dance, Degas even managed to convey that same lightness in this bronze sculpture.
  • The Tub: Degas pioneered the approach to the nude. Read about the differences between the classical composition of the nude and Degas's preferred approach.
  • At the Milliner's: Degas was a master of evoking the sense of spontaneous observation in his work. Learn which compositional approaches he used to achieve this through the image of At the Milliner's.
  • The Millinery Shop: Degas would often choose an unusual point of view. Find out how it affects the composition and focus in this Impressionist painting.
  • Two Dancers: Degas's usage of pastels to create strong strokes and harsh color contrasts evoke a sense of presence in this mature Impressionist painting.

On the next page, see a portrait of Mary Cassatt visiting a museum with her sister. Cassatt was the only woman and the only American to become a part of the Impressionist group.

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Visit to a Museum by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

an oil on canvas (36-1/8 x 26-3/4 inches), which can be seen at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
an oil on canvas (36-1/8 x 26-3/4 inches), which can be seen at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

As shown in Visit to a Museum (c. 1879-80), Edgar Degas's bold compositional arrangements gave his work an immediacy that suggests the observations of a passing glance. In this pastel of two women in a gallery at the Louvre, the floor meets the wall at a raking angle, the bench is cut off at the right, and the standing woman's skirt trails out of the image at the left. It is as if these women -- Mary Cassatt and her sister -- will soon rise and move on to another gallery.

 The next painting is a more traditional and formal portrait of another woman dear to the artist, his sister: Portrait of Thérèse Degas.

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Portrait of Therese Degas by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's Portrait of Thérèse Degas is an oil on canvas (35 x 26-3/8 inches), which can be seen at Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's Portrait of Thérèse Degas is an oil on canvas (35 x 26-3/8 inches), which can be seen at Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's Portrait of Thérèse Degas (1863) reflects the admiration that he developed for presenting images precisely as they were while a pupil of Louis Lemothe. The depth of Degas's own skill can be seen in his early portraiture, in which he renders accurate likenesses of his family members. Here he presents his sister Thérèse. Her shawl suggests that she is prepared for a stroll outdoors; in fact, this is an engagement portrait, and her costume may hint to her impending departure from the family home.

To present activity accurately was a new challenge that Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas took on when he started painting racecourse scenes like Horses Before the Stands, found on the next page.

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Horses Before the Stands by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Horses Before the Stands by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas is an essence on paper mounted on canvas (18-1/8 x 24 inches) that is housed in Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Horses Before the Stands by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas is an essence on paper mounted on canvas (18-1/8 x 24 inches) that is housed in Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's Horses Before the Stands (1866-68) is an Impressionist painting full of life. Degas began to paint scenes at the racecourse around 1861. The challenging subject appealed to the analytical painter. Every aspect of horse racing was modern: a fashionable crowd, a leisure time activity, and the elements of motion and speed. In his daring approach to composition, inspired in part by Japanese prints and the new medium of photography, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas boldly cut figures off at the border of his frame, giving the sense of spontaneous action.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was a master of capturing the details and activities of modern life. On the next page, see how he portrayed a business in Impressionist painting The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans.

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The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans (28-3/4 x 36-1/4 inches) that can be seen at Musée Municipal de Pau, France.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans (28-3/4 x 36-1/4 inches) that can be seen at Musée Municipal de Pau, France.

The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans (1873) is the result of Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's visit to his maternal family in New Orleans in 1872. His slice-of-life depiction of the Cotton Exchange contains several family portraits, including his brother Achille resting against the open window at the left and their uncle Michael polishing his spectacles in the foreground. No detail escaped Degas's scrutiny, from the dealers inspecting the quality of the cotton to the clerks hovering over paperwork at their desks.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas was, however, the embodiment of le flaneur and mostly painted Parisian life as seen in the next Impressionist painting.

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Women in Front of a Cafe, Evening by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's Women in Front of a Café, Evening is a pastel over monotype (16-1/8 x 23-5/8 inches), which is on display at Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's Women in Front of a Café, Evening is a pastel over monotype (16-1/8 x 23-5/8 inches), which is on display at Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas favored portraying Parisian life as seen in Women in Front of a Café, Evening (1877). Unlike the other members of the circle, Degas had little interest in seeking subjects outside the realm of urban Paris. In this, he embodied poet Charles-Pierre Baudelaire's idea of the flaneur, the man at home -- and at leisure -- in the city, who observed every aspect of modern life. Here he highlights a monotype -- a single reproduced image -- with bright strokes of pastel.

Whether it was the hustle and bustle of night life or the theater, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas painted the new, modern Paris. One of his favorite subjects was dancers. Learn about the Impressionist painting The Star (L'Étoile) on the next page.

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The Star (L'Etoile) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's is a pastel on paper (23-5/8 x 17-3/8 inches) that is housed in Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's is a pastel on paper (23-5/8 x 17-3/8 inches) that is housed in Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

The Star (L'Étoile,1878) is probably one of Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's most famous works. Degas selected an elevated point of view for this painting. The dancer's skirt seems to vanish under the stage lights, which cast pale violet shadows on the smooth, powdered skin of her bare arms and chest. Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas followed the rapid movement of the dancer across the stage with swift and sure calligraphic strokes.

The next Impressionist painting also superbly captures an artist at work, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando.

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Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando is an oil on canvas (46 x 30-1/2 inches), which belongs to The National Gallery, London.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando is an oil on canvas (46 x 30-1/2 inches), which belongs to The National Gallery, London.

For Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (1879), Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas prepared at least four studies of the famed aerialist La La performing her trademark stunt: hanging by her teeth at the end of a rope. His finished painting captures the breathless excitement of the moment, when the crowd looks up to see her dangling high above their heads. The critic Armand Silvestre commended Degas's firm and accurate drawing.

Sketching and catching the moment was also an important component of Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's famed Impressionist ballet paintings. Examen de Danse (Dance Examination) on the next page is a great example.

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Examen de Danse (Dance Examination) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's (24-1/2 x 18 inches) that can be seen at Denver Art Museum.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's (24-1/2 x 18 inches) that can be seen at Denver Art Museum.

Examen de Danse (Dance Examination,1880) by Impressionist artist Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas clearly demonstrates how pastel was a good medium for Degas's portrayal of dancers, as, with each sure stroke, he described a gesture -- the point of a foot, the arch of a neck -- as swiftly as it was made in life. To suggest the weight or insubstantiality of form -- from the dancers' sturdy limbs to their flowing skirts -- he varied the pressure of his touch.

However, as well-suited as pastels were for Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's favorite subject, he also applied other media to his depictions of dancers. Go to the next page to see his sculpture Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.

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Little Dancer of Fourteen Years by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Little Dancer of Fourteen Years by Hilaire-Germain- Edgar Degas is a bronze, gauze, and satin sculpture (38-7/16 inches high) on display at The Saint Louis Art Museum.
Little Dancer of Fourteen Years by Hilaire-Germain- Edgar Degas is a bronze, gauze, and satin sculpture (38-7/16 inches high) on display at The Saint Louis Art Museum.

This sculpture by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas is called Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (1880; cast 1920). The taut contours of the small bronze figure convey the nervous discipline of a young dancer. The position of her arms, drawn straight down and clasped behind her back, articulates the fragile bones of her chest and shoulders; the forward thrust of her head strains her facial features. Blurring the line between rendering and reality, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas gave this dancer a real costume made of gauze and tied her braid with a satin ribbon.

The next Impressionist work by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas is The Tub, a nude that was quite revolutionary in its composition.

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The Tub by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

The Tub by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas is a pastel (23-5/8 x 32-5/8 inches), which is on display at Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France.
The Tub by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas is a pastel (23-5/8 x 32-5/8 inches), which is on display at Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France.

The Tub (1886) is part of Impressionist Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's series of women bathing and dressing, in which he pioneered a new approach to the nude. The academic formulation of the nude was based on beauty, and the figure was composed in a way that celebrated the regularity of proportion and the grace of movement. Degas preferred to portray the accidental gesture, as if the figure was caught unawares. Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas heightened this sense of voyeurism with a high point of view, looking down at the figure and into the tub.

Asymmetric compositions and acute lines of vision were other techniques that Degas used to engage the viewer, as seen in the Impressionist painting At the Milliner's on the following page.

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At the Milliner's by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

At the Milliner's by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas is a pastel on pale gray woven paper, laid down on silk bolting (30 x 34 inches). This work can be seen at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
At the Milliner's by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas is a pastel on pale gray woven paper, laid down on silk bolting (30 x 34 inches). This work can be seen at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's At the Milliner's (1882) shows the Impressionist artist's own approach to spontaneous observation involved a daring spatial organization characterized by cut-off figures, acute lines of vision, and asymmetrical composition. Here, in a pastel of a woman trying on a bonnet in front of a mirror, the mirror frame is set at an oblique angle to the right side of the composition, bisecting the form of the attending saleswoman who holds out another hat.

Hats, being such an important part of Parisian life, were an obvious subject for Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas -- even to the point where they were the focus of his composition as is the case with the next Impressionist painting.

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The Millinery Shop by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's The Millinery Shop is an oil on canvas (39-3/8x43-9/16 inches), which is housed in The Art Institute of Chicago.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's The Millinery Shop is an oil on canvas (39-3/8x43-9/16 inches), which is housed in The Art Institute of Chicago.

For The Millinery Shop (1884-90), Impressionist artist Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas chose a high point of view to portray a milliner at work trimming a hat. The figure's absorption in her task, as well as her position deep in the com­position, suggests that she is unaware of being observed. The hats, arranged on stands at random on her worktable, are more prominent in the composition than she is and, with their colorful ribbons and floral wreathes, have the decorative appearance of a fashionable modern still life.

The next, and final, Impressionist painting by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas in this article is The Two Dancers, which Degas painted at the age of 56, when his eyesight had started failing.

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Two Dancers by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's Two Dancers is a pastel on cream woven paper, pieced and laid down on board (27-3/4x21-1/8 inches), which is in the possession of The Art Institute of Chicago.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas's Two Dancers is a pastel on cream woven paper, pieced and laid down on board (27-3/4x21-1/8 inches), which is in the possession of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Exemplified above by Two Dancers (1890), Impressionist painter Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas continued to portray dancers into his late career. As his eyesight began to fail, the strong, gestural activity of working pastel on paper gave him the effects that he desired as well as a medium he could control. The harsh color contrasts evoke the artificial stage lighting on the dancers' tulle skirts and the makeup powdered on their bare flesh as they wait in the wings.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Debra N. Mancoff is an art historian and lecturer and the author of numerous books on nineteenth-century European and American paintings. She is a scholar in residence at the Newberry Library.