Edward Degas Master of Detail

Edward Degas Master of Detail

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Dave Rago.

Edgar Degas was so aligned with the ballet dancers at the Paris Opera he could almost feel how dog-tired they were when they stopped to rest.  From backstage the artist captured their endless movements from the rubbing of throbbing feet to the yawning, stretching and dozing off of the tuckered-out ballerinas.  

“A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy.  When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people. “
— Degas

Degas body of work captured everything from the ruffles of the dancers' tutus and the fluffing of their dresses to the relentless hours of ballet rehearsals and the glitz and glamour of being under the bright lights. 

From young girls adjusting their toe shoes to sleepy-eyed dancers relaxing on a bench between shows, Degas didn’t miss much.  He understood dance steps so well he could pull off sauntering around the room imitating a pirouette or an arabesque. 

Sometimes the ballerinas visited his dusty, messy studio.  Decked out in a smock over a suit and tie, Degas treated them like his own children.

From 1855 to 1905 the artist created more than a thousand dance pictures.

Degas concluded ballet training was a lot like creating art.  It required two skills:  hard work and hours and hours of practice.  So Degas spent hours and hours drawing dance poses.

“A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people,” he said.

Unlike many of his Impressionist cohorts Degas couldn’t stand painting out-doors.  He wasn’t so much interested in capturing a moment in time as he was drawing lots of sketches and bringing them back to his studio where he could arrange his subjects, light them the way he liked and work alone.  

A perfectionist, Degas was known to continue working on a painting even after he sold them.  One friend had to chain his painting to the wall to stop the artist from taking the work of art back to his studio every time he came to visit.

Degas also did interesting prints.  He worked on many of them with friend and fellow artist Mary Cassatt.  They experimented using all sorts of bright and colorful materials.  And he didn’t discriminate.  Degas valued his drawings and pastels as much as he did his paintings. 

Not only ballerinas but racecourse scenes, café concerts, prostitutes and bathers fascinated Degas. 

As he aged he began to lose his eyesight.  He did fewer paintings and started to model figures out of wax. When he died in 1917 friends were surprised to discover his studio filled with small, beautiful figures.

Degas had no interest in creating public monuments through his sculpture.  For him sculpture was a private medium.  Most of the 150 pieces in his studio were wax, clay, and plastiline, a non-drying clay.  Many were beyond repair. 

The only sculpture Degas actually exhibited in public was “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” in 1881.

In 1918, Degas heirs decided to authorize a series of cast bronzes made by the Hébrard foundry from 73 of his small figures.  The bronzes in museums and private collections today are all copies made after his death.

On May 18, Rago Auctions featured a selection of Degas works including recast bronzes in his 19th/20th Century American and European Art auction. 


Au Louvre: la peinture (Mary Cassatt); Etching and drypoint; printed in 1959 from a cancelled plate; 12 inches by 4 7/8 inches;  $1,000.

Cueillette des pommes; recast bronze relief; inscribed, dated and numbered; cast in 1998; 18 ¼ inches by 19 3/8 inches;  $1,875.

Femme se lavant; recast bronze; inscribed, dated and numbered; cast in 1998; 6 ¼ inches high;  $2,000. 

Danseuse s’avancant, les bras leves, la jambe droite en avant; recast bronze; inscribed, dated and numbered; cast in 1998; 24 5/8 inches high;  $2,500.

L’ecoliere; recast bronze; inscribed, numbered and dated; cast in 1998; 11 3/8 inches high;  $2,500.  


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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