The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler

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Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, 1834-1917

Nationality: French
Date of Birth: 1834.07.19
Place of Birth: 8 Rue Saint-Georges, Paris
Date of Death: 1917.09.26
Place of Death: Paris


Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas was the eldest son of a wealthy Parisian banker.


Degas, a painter, draughtsman, printmaker, sculptor, pastellist, photographer and collector, originally intended to study law, registering at the Sorbonne's Faculté de Droit in 1853, but in 1853 he entered the studio of Louis Lamothe, a pupil of Ingres. From 1855-56 he attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. This classical education caused him to place a huge emphasis on the importance of line. Also of significance in the formation of Degas' style was his stay in Italy from 1856 to 1859, when he studied and copied from the works of the Italian masters in Rome, Florence, Siena and Pisa. He became one of the founder member of the French Impressionist group in 1873, although he placed a great deal more emphasis on drawing and composition than they did. Indeed, he preferred to be known as a 'Realist' or 'Naturalist' painter rather than an 'Impressionist'.

In Paris in 1855 Whistler became intimate with Fantin Latour and Degas. They were united in their admiration for the Realist Courbet who in 1855 had set up his own one-man show in Paris in defiance of the Exposition Universelle and had published his first 'Manifesto'.

Works like Whistler's At the Piano (YMSM 24) and Degas' Bellelli Family (1858-67, oil, Paris, Musée d'Orsay) show a shared interest in seventeenth century Dutch domestic interior scenes. Degas was later to declare, 'A nos début, Fantin, Whistler, et moi, nous étions sur la même voie, la route de Hollande'. Both artists admired each other's work. Degas made a slight drawing of Symphony in White, No. 3 (YMSM 61) in a notebook he used around 1864-67, possibly when the picture went to the Royal Academy in 1867. He also admired Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother (YMSM 101) and Arrangement in Black: Lady Meux (YMSM 228), which he described as 'astonishing' in a letter to Henri Rouart, and Arrangement in Black: La Dame au brodequin jaune - Portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell (YMSM 242) which he likened to the work of Watteau. Degas visited London in 1872, at a time which he was friendly with not only Whistler, but Millais, Tissot and Legros.

Both Degas and Whistler used photography as a tool for painting and to record and promote their work, and they discussed its potential between themselves. They also had a common interest in printmaking. When the Whistlers moved to Paris in 1891 they socialised in a very similar circle to Degas, both including among their friends men like Monet and Mallarmé. However, by this point there was a degree of antagonism between the two, both being known for their sharp tongues. Degas felt that Whistler wasted his time on frivolities like dress and petty quarrels, and Whistler described Degas' latest works as 'absolutely shameful!!!' (#06591).


Guérin, M. (ed.), Lettres de Degas, Paris, 1931, Eng. trans., rev., Oxford, 1947; Reff, Theodore, The Notebooks of Edgar Degas, 2 vols, London, 1976, rev. New York, 1986; Rewald, John, Degas: Works in Sculpture: A Complete Catalogue , New York and London, 1944; Lemoisne, P.-A., Degas et son oeuvre, 4 vols, Paris, 1946-49; supplement by P. Brame and T. Reff, New York and London, 1984; Reff, T., 'The Butterfly and the Old Ox', Art News, vol. 70, 1971; Monnier, Geneviève, 'Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, (accessed 21 December 2001).