Edgar Degas

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Self-portrait, 1854-1855

Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (19 July 183427 September 1917), known as Edgar Degas, was a French painter, printmaker and sculptor.

Quotes by Edgar Degas[edit]

The Cotton Exchange, New Orleans 1873
  • We were created to look at one another, weren't we.
    • Walter Sickert The Complete writing on art ed Anna Robins OUP, Oxford 2002 ISBN 0199261695
  • 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.
  • I put it (a still life of a pear, made by Manet, ed.) there (on the wall, next to Ingres Jupiter, ed.), for a pear like that would overthrow any god.
    • remark in a conversation with the writer Moore, ca. 1875; as quoted in The private lives of the Impressionists, Sue Roe, Harpen Collins Publishers, New York 2006, p. 117
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.
  • You must aim high, not in what you are going to do at some future date, but in what you are going to make yourself do to-day. Otherwise, working is just a waste of time.
    • a remark to E. Rouart in 1904; as quoted in Renoir – his life and work, Francois Fosca, Book Club Associates /Thames and Hudson Ltd, London 1975, p. 274
  • 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 doit 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)
  • Oh! Women can never forgive me. They hate me, they can feel that I ‘m disarming them. I show them without their coquetry, in the states of animals cleaning themselves... ...I’m sure of it; they see me as the enemy. Fortunately, since if they did like me, that would be the end of me.
    • ‘Degas by Himself, Drawings, Paintings, Writings’, ed. Richard Kendall 2000, p. 299
  • villas with columns in different styles (in Lousiana, America, ed.) painted white, in gardens of magnolias, orange trees, banana trees, negroes in old clothes like characters from La Belle Jardiniere … …rosy white children in black (negro, ed.) arms… …a brilliant light which streams my eyes… …the negresses of all shades, holding in their arms little white babies, so white, against white houses with columns of fluted wood and in gardens of orange trees. (quote on his journey through America during 1872)
    • from his letter, Lousiana, America 1872; as quoted in “The private lives of the Impressionists”, Sue Roe, Harpen Collins Publishers, New York 2006, p. 113-114
  • ladies in muslin draped on porches at the fronts of their little houses… …shops bursting with fruit, and the contrast between the lively hum and the bustle of the offices with the immense black animal force… …The black world I have not the time to explore; there are some real gifts of colour and drawing in these forests of ebony. It will seem amazing to live among white people when I get back to Paris. I love silhouettes so much, and these silhouettes walk. (quote on his journey through America during 1872)
    • from his letter to Tissot, Lousiana, America 1872; as quoted in “The private lives of the Impressionists”, Sue Roe, Harpen Collins Publishers, New York 2006, p. 113-114
  • We also consider that Miss Berthe Morisot’s (woman painter in French Impressionism who was married with a brother of Eduard Manet , ed.) name and talent are too important to us to do without. (Degas is referring to the participation in the first Impressionist’s show he was preparing, then; he was in strong opposition to Eduard Manet who wanted to exclude Berthe Morisot)
    • from a letter to Cornelie Morisot, Spring 1873; as quoted in “The private lives of the Impressionists”, Sue Roe, Harpen Collins Publishers, New York 2006, p. 119
  • pinkish and bluish draperies on neutral grey grounds and black cypresses... ...The red of Jeptha’s dress... ...some reddish brown, some slightly pinkish... ...Graduated blue sky... ...the ground at the front a grey violet shadow... Look for some turquoise in the blue.(Degas’ working note about choosing colors for his painting ‘The Daughter of Jeptha’)
    • from his working notes; as quoted in “The private lives of the Impressionists”, Sue Roe, Harpen Collins Publishers, New York 2006, p. 34
  • …women... ...their way of observing, combining, sensing the way they dress. They compare a thousand of more visible things with one another than a man does.
    • from “The private lives of the Impressionists”, Sue Roe, Harpen Collins Publishers, New York 2006, p. 53
  • Anyone would think paintings were made like speculations on the stock market, out of the frictions of ambitious young people... ...it sharpens the mind, but clouds your judgement.
    • from “The private lives of the Impressionists”, Sue Roe, Harpen Collins Publishers, New York 2006, p. 34
  • Draw all kind of everyday object placed, in such a way that they have in them the life of the man or woman – corsets that have just been removed, for example, and which retain the form of the body. Do a series in aquatint on mourning, different blacks – black veils of deep mourning floating on the face – black gloves – mourning carriages, undertaker’s vehicles – carriages like Venetian gondolas. On smoke – smoker’s smoke, pipes, cigarettes, cigars – smoke from locomotives, from tall factory chimneys, from steam boats, etc. On evening – infinite variety of subjects in cafes, different tones of glass robes reflected in the mirrors. On bakery, bread. Series of baker’s boys, seen in the cellar itself or through the basement windows from the street – backs the colour of the pink flour – beautiful curves of dough – still-life’s of different breads, large, oval, long, round, etc. Studies in color of the yellows, pinks, grays, whites of bread... ...Neither monuments nor houses have ever been done from below, close up as they appear when you walk down the street. (a working note in which Degas planned series of views of modern Paris, the same time when he sketched the backstreet brothels, making graphic unflinching and even his realistic ‘pornographic’ sketches he called his ‘glimpses through the keyhole’, in which he also experimented with perspectives)
    • from his Notebooks; Clarendon Press, Oxford 1976, nos 30 & 34 circa 1877; as quoted in ‘’The private lives of the Impressionists’’ Sue Roe, Harpen Collins Publishers, New York 2006, p. 182

Degas: An Intimate Portrait (1927)[edit]

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)[edit]

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[edit]

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.


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

Quotes about Edgar Degas[edit]

The Milliner's Shop, 1885
  • It isn't ideas I'm short of..I've got too many [on discussing poetry with Mallarme,who replied]: Degas, you can't make a poem with ideas-you make it with words';
    • From Degas..Manet..Morisot, Paul Valery (translation, David Paul) Pantheon, New York 1960
  • 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.
  • I was painting modern Paris while you were still painting Greek athletes [Manet to his friend Edgar Degas, [quoted by w:George Moore circa 1879]. [Later Degas reacted: 'That Manet, as soon as I started painting dancers, he did them.'
    • Édouard Manet (c. 1879), as quoted in The Impressionists at first hand, by Bernard Denvir, Thames and Hudson, London 1991, p. 78
  • As I admired it [a red pencil and chalk drawing by Degas of a young mother, nursing her child] he showed me a whole series done from the same model and with the same sort of rhythm. He is a draughtsman of the first order; it would be interesting to show all these preparatory studies for a painting to the public, which generally imagines that the impressionists work in a very casual way. I do not think it possible to go further in the rendering of form.
    • Berthe Morisot (January 1886), note in her Journal, about her visit to Degas' studio; as quoted in The Private Lives of the Impressionists Sue Roe; Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 2006, pp. 262-263
  • 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 [Degas] 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 [Degas] 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)
  • Degas isn't enough of a painter; he doesn't have enough of that! With a little bit of temperament one can manage to be a painter, It's enough to have a sense of art, and that sense is no doubt what the bourgeoisie fear most.. ..For a painter, sensation is at the bottom of everything. I will go on repeating it forever. Procedures are not what I advocate.
    • Quote by Paul Cézanne in: 'What he told me – II. The Louvre', Joachim Gasquet’s Cézanne, - a Memoir with Conversations, (1897 - 1906); Thames and Hudson, London 1991 pp. 184-185

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