Edgar Degas

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Self-portrait, 1854-1855

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834-07-19 - 1917-09-27), known as Edgar Degas, was a French painter, printmaker and sculptor.


The Cotton Exchange, New Orleans 1873
  • Boredom soon overcomes me when I am contemplating nature.
    • Notebook entry (1858), The Notebooks of Edgar Degas, ed. Theodore Reff (1976)
Woman with vase (Mlle. Musson), 1872
  • J'ai vraiment, un vrai bagage dans la tête. S'il y avait pour cela, comme il y a partout ici, des compagnies d'assurance, voilà un ballot je ferais assurer de suite.
    • I really have some luggage in my head. If only there were insurance companies for that as there are for so many things here, there's a bale I should insure at once.
    • Letter to James Tissot, (New Orleans, 1873), quoted in Marilyn Brown, Degas and the Business of Art: A Cotton Office in New Orleans (Penn State Press, 1994)
  • Your pictures would have been finished a long time ago if I were not forced every day to do something to earn money.
Four dancers, c. 1899
  • I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament — temperament is the word — I know nothing.
    • Said in conversation with George Moore and quoted by Moore in Impressions and Opinions (1891)
Woman in a tub 1886
  • À vous il faut la vie naturelle, à moi la vie factice.
    • You need the natural life; I, the artificial.
    • George Moore, Impressions and Opinions (1891)
    • These words were spoken, Moore states, to "a landscape painter"
The Orchestra at the Opéra, 1870
  • Hitherto the nude has always been represented in poses which presuppose an audience; but these women of mine are honest, simple folk, unconcerned by any other interests than those involved in their physical condition. Here is another; she is washing her feet. It is as if you looked through a key-hole.
    • George Moore, Impressions and Opinions (1891)
  • What a delightful thing is the conversation of specialists! One understands absolutely nothing and it’s charming.
    • Quoted in a letter by Daniel Halévy (1892-01-31), from Degas Letters, ed. Marcel Guerin, trans. Marguerite Kay (1947)
  • Comme nous avons mal fait de nous laisser appeler Impressionistes.
    • What a pity we allowed ourselves to be called Impressionists.
    • Quoted by Walter Sickert in "Post-Impressionists," Fortnightly Review (January 1911)
Woman at her toilette, c. 1885
  • I always urged my contemporaries to look for interest and inspiration to the development and study of drawing, but they would not listen. They thought the road to salvation lay by the way of colour.
    • Quoted by Walter Sickert in "Post-Impressionism and Cubism," Pall Mall Gazette (1914-03-11). According to Sickert, Degas had said this to him in 1885.
  • Je n'admets pas qu'une femme puisse dessiner comme ca.
    • I will not admit that a woman can draw like that.
    • Quoted in Forbes Watson, Mary Cassatt (1932)
    • Referring to some etchings by Cassatt that Degas admired
Jockeys at the Racecourse, 1869-1872
  • A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.
    • Georges Jeanniot, Souvenirs sur Degas (Memories of Degas, 1933)
Dancers in a landscape, c. 1897
  • It seems to me that today, if the artist wishes to be serious — to cut out a little original niche for himself, or at least preserve his own innocence of personality — he must once more sink himself in solitude. There is too much talk and gossip; pictures are apparently made, like stock-market prices, by competition of people eager for profit; in order to do anything at all we need (so to speak) the wit and ideas of our neighbors as much as the businessmen need the funds of others to win on the market. All this traffic sharpens our intelligence and falsifies our judgment.
    • Notebook entry, quoted in Artists on Art: From the XIV to the XX Century, ed. Robert Goldwater (Pantheon, 1945)
  • Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.
    • Quoted in Artists on Art: From the XIV to the XX Century, ed. Robert Goldwater (Pantheon, 1945)
  • There is a kind of success that is indistinguishable from panic.
    • Quoted in Daniel Halévy, Degas Parle (1960) [My Friend Degas, trans. and ed. Mina Curtiss, Wesleyan University Press, 1964], p. 119
Dancers in blue (undated)
  • Une peinture, c'est d'abord un produit de l'imagination de l'artiste, ce ne doir jamais être une copie. Si, ensuite, on peut y ajouter deux ou trois accents de nature, evidemment ca ne fait pas de mal.
    • A painting is above all a product of the artist's imagination, it must never be a copy. If, at a later stage, he wants to add two or three touches from nature, of course it doesn't spoil anything.
    • Quoted in Maurice Sérullaz, L'univers de Degas (H. Scrépel, 1979), p. 13
The grooming, c. 1885
  • C'est très bien de copier ce qu'on voit, c'est beaucoup mieux de dessiner ce que l'on ne voit plus que dans son mémoire. C'est une transformation pendant laquelle l'ingéniosité collabore avec la mémoire. Vous ne reproduisez que ce qui vous a frappé, c'est-à-dire le nécessaire.
    • It is very good to copy what one sees; it is much better to draw what you can't see any more but is in your memory. It is a transformation in which imagination and memory work together. You only reproduce what struck you, that is to say the necessary.
    • Quoted in Maurice Sérullaz, L'univers de Degas (H. Scrépel, 1979), p. 13
  • Je voudrais être illustre et inconnu.
    • I should like to be famous and unknown.
    • Said to Alexis Rouart and quoted in Antoine Terrasse, Degas (Chartwell Books, 1982)
  • Women can never forgive me; they hate me, they feel I am disarming them. I show them without their coquetry.
    • Quoted in Julian Barnes, "The Artist As Voyeur" (1996), from The Grove Book of Art Writing, ed. Martin Gayford and Karen Wright (Grove Press, 2000)

Degas: An Intimate Portrait (1927)

A memoir by Ambroise Vollard, translated by Randolph T. Weaver. Dover, 1986, ISBN 0-486-25131-4

  • I have been, or seemed, hard with everyone because I was carried away by a sort of brutality born of my distrust in myself and my ill-humor. I have felt so badly equipped, so soft, in spite of the fact that my attitude towards art seemed to me so just. I was disgusted with everyone, and especially myself.
    • "The Sensitive Artist" (p. 43)
  • Visitor: Monsieur Degas, were there any of Monet's pictures at the Durand-Ruel exhibition?
    Degas: Why, I met Monet himself there, and I said to him, "Let me get out of here. Those reflections in the water hurt my eyes!" His pictures were always too draughty for me. If it had been any worse I should have had to turn up my coat collar.
    • "The Crime and the Punishment" (p. 46)
  • The air you breathe in a picture is not necessarily the same as the air out of doors.
    • "The Crime and the Punishment" (p. 47)
  • If I were the government I would have a special brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye on artists who paint landscapes from nature. Oh, I don't mean to kill anyone; just a little dose of bird-shot now and then as a warning.
    • "Some of Degas' Views on Art" (p. 56)
The Ballet School, 1879-1880
  • I, marry? Oh, I could never bring myself to do it. I would have been in mortal misery all my life for fear my wife might say, "That's a pretty little thing," after I had finished a picture.
    • "Methods of Work" (p. 64)
  • I'm glad to say I haven't found my style yet. I'd be bored to death.
    • "Technical Details" (p. 70)
Dancers, 1890
  • People call me the painter of dancing girls. It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.
    • "As He Grows Old" (p. 87)

Degas Dance Drawing (1935)

Degas Danse Dessin by Paul Valéry, trans. David Paul. Princeton University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-691-01882-0

Three Dancers, 1898
  • Il faut avoir une haute idée, non pas de ce qu'on fait, mais de ce qu'on pourra faire un jour; sans quoi ce n'est pas la peine de travailler.
    • You have to have a high conception, not of what you are doing, but of what you may do one day: without that, there's no point in working.
    • "Mad About Drawing" (p. 64)
  • Le dessin n'est pas la forme, il est la manière de voir la forme.
    • Drawing is not the same as form; it is a way of seeing form.
    • "Drawing Is Not the Same As Form..." (p. 82)
  • A man is an artist only at certain moments, by an effort of will. Objects have the same appearance for everybody.

The Shop-Talk of Edgar Degas

R. H. Ives Gammell, ed. University Press, Boston, 1961

Rehearsal for a ballet, 1873-1874
  • The museums are here to teach the history of art and something more as well, for, if they stimulate in the weak a desire to imitate, they furnish the strong with the means of their emancipation.
  • A picture is a thing which requires as much knavery, as much malice, and as much vice as the perpetration of a crime. Make it untrue and add an accent of truth.
  • Art is vice. One does not wed it, one rapes it.
Girl having her hair combed at the beach, 1876-1877
  • Even working from nature you have to compose.
In the bath, 1898
  • Drawing is not what you see but what you must make others see.
  • Make a drawing. Start it all over again, trace it. Start it and trace it again.
  • You must do over the same subject ten times, a hundred times. In art nothing must appear accidental, even a movement.
  • Make people's portraits in familiar and typical attitudes.
  • Work a great deal at evening effects, lamplight, candlelight, etc. The intriguing thing is not to show the source of the light but the effect of the lighting.
  • Be sure to give the same expression to a person's face that you give to his body.
  • Painting is not very difficult when you don't know how; but when you know, oh! then, it's another matter.
  • It requires courage to make a frontal attack on nature through the broad planes and the large lines and it is cowardly to do it by the facets and details. It is a battle.
  • Everybody has talent at twenty-five. The difficult thing is to have it at fifty.


  • But it's true, isn't it Pauline, that people imagine that the artists and their models spend their time getting up to all sorts of obscenities? As far as work goes, well, they paint or sculpt when they are tired of enjoying themselves.
  • Conversation in real life is full of half-finished sentences and overlapping talk. Why shouldn't painting be too?
  • Damn, and just when I was starting to get it!
    • Deathbed statement.
  • Drawing is the artist's most direct and spontaneous expression, a species of writing: it reveals, better than does painting, his true personality.
  • Great patience is called for on the hard path that I have entered on.
  • How awful it is not being able to see clearly any more! I have had to give up drawing and painting and for years now content myself with sculpture ... But if my eyesight continues to dim I won't even be able to model any more. What will I do with my days then?
  • I feel as a horse must feel when the beautiful cup is given to the jockey.
    • After a painting of his sold for a very high price (reported as $100,000) in an auction.
  • I frequently lock myself in my studio. I do not often see the people I love, and in the end I shall suffer for it... painting is one's private life.
  • If painting weren't so difficult, it wouldn't be fun.
  • The moods of sadness that come over anyone who takes up art... these dismal moods have very little compensation.
  • The secret is to follow the advice the masters give you in their works while doing something different from them.
  • Truth is never ugly when one can find in it what one needs.
  • What is certain is that setting a piece of nature in place and drawing it are two very different things.
  • What use is my mind? Granted that it enables me to hail a bus and to pay my fare. But once I am inside my studio, what use is my mind? I have my model, my pencil, my paints. My mind doesn't interest me.


  • I always suspect an artist who is successful before he is dead.

About Edgar Degas

The Milliner's Shop, 1885
  • A strange fellow, this Degas — sickly, a bundle of nerves, with such weak eyes that he is afraid of going blind, yet for these very reasons extremely sensitive to the character of things. He is more skillful in capturing the essence of modern life than anyone I know.
  • With what is he concerned? Drawing was at its lowest ebb; it had to be restored. Looking at these nudes, I exclaim, "Drawing has come back again!"

    As a man and painter he sets an example. Degas is one of those rare masters who could have had anything he wanted, yet he scorned decorations, honors, fortune, without bitterness, without jealousy.

  • I have often heard Degas say that in painting you must give the idea of the true by means of the false.
The amateur, 1866
  • I would ask him to give me his definition of drawing. "You don't know a thing about it," he would always end up saying. And without fail he would go on to this apologue: that the Muses do their work on their own, each apart from the others, and that they never talk shop. The day's work over, there are no discussions, no comparisons of their respective labors. "They just dance," he would shout.
Cafe Concert at The Ambassadors, 1876-1877
  • Forain s'était construit un hôtel, et fil installer le téléphone presque nouveau. Il voulut d'abord "épater" Degas. Il l'invite à dîner, previent un compere, qui, pendant le dîner, appelle Forain à l'appareil. Quelque mots échangé, Forain revient. Degas lui dit: "C'est ça le téléphone? On vous sonne et vous y allez."
    • When Forain built himself a town house, he installed a telephone, which was still not in very wide use. Wanting above all to surprise Degas with it, he invited him to dinner, and forewarned a friend, who summoned Forain to the receiver during the meal. After exchanging a few words, Forain sits down at table again. "So that's the telephone?" says Degas. "They ring, and you run."
    • Paul Valéry, Degas Danse Dessin (1935): "More Obiter Dicta"
  • All Paris knew him as a fighter, a recluse, guarding his privacy with cruel, crushing words. The habitués of the Paris boulevards defended themselves against his scorn by accusing him of insincerity. "Degas," they said, "would like to see his reflection in a boulevard window in order to give himself the satisfaction of breaking the plate-glass with his cane."
    • Daniel Halévy, Degas Parle (1960) [My Friend Degas, trans. and ed. Mina Curtiss, Wesleyan University Press, 1964]
The rehearsal, 1875
  • To anyone who is not an artist it must seem rather strange that Degas who could do anything — for whom setting down what he saw presented no difficulties at all — should have continued to draw the same poses year after year — often, it would seem, with increasing difficulty. Just as a classical dancer repeats the same movements again and again, in order to achieve a greater perfection of line and balance, so Degas repeats the same motifs, it was one of the things that gave him so much sympathy with dancers. He was continually struggling to achieve an idea of perfect form, but this did not prevent him looking for the truth in what might seem an artificial situation.
  • He was an avid collector of both old and new art; in his sixties he purchased two Gauguins, and when pushing eighty he remarked with some admiration of Cubism that "it seems even more difficult than painting."
    • Robert Hughes, "Edgar Degas," Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists (Viking/Penguin, 1991)

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