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Edgar Degas, Photographer

Edgar Degas - Danseuse -vers 1900

“These days, Degas abandons himself entirely to his new passion for photography,” wrote an artist friend in autumn 1895, the moment of the great Impressionist painter’s most intense exploration of photography. (…)

Degas’s photographic figure studies, portraits of friends and family, and self-portraits—especially those in which lamp-lit figures emerge from darkness—are imbued with a Symbolist spirit evocative of realms more psychological than physical. Most were made in the evenings, when Degas transformed dinner parties into photographic soirees, requisitioning the living rooms of his friends, arranging oil lamps, and directing the poses of dinner guests enlisted as models. “He went back and forth … running from one end of the room to the other with an expression of infinite happiness,” wrote Daniel Halévy, the son of Degas’s close friends Ludovic and Louise Halévy, describing one such evening. “At half-past eleven everybody left; Degas, surrounded by three laughing girls, carried his camera as proudly as a child carrying a rifle.”

Malcolm Daniel, Associate Curator of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a contributor to The Waking Dream: Photography’s First Century and author of The Photographs of Édouard Baldus.

Edgar Degas, one of the most revered of the artists associated with French Impressionism, was also a talented photographer. A revolutionary painter who became world renowned for his scenes of ballet dancers, race horses at Longchamps, and other images of Parisian life, Degas applied his genius to photography late in his career.

Self portrait with Bartholomé’s ‘Weeping girl’ (Autoportrait à la statue de Bartholomé) c 1895 gelatin silver photograph Musée d'Orsay, Paris Gift of the Society of Friends of the Musée d’Orsay, 1992 © RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Self portrait with Bartholomé’s ‘Weeping girl’ (Autoportrait à la statue de Bartholomé) c 1895 gelatin silver photograph Musée d’Orsay, Paris Gift of the Society of Friends of the Musée d’Orsay, 1992 © RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Edgar Degas, 'Dancer Adjusting her Shoulder Strap', c. 1895-6

Edgar Degas, ‘Dancer Adjusting her Shoulder Strap’, c. 1895-6

Julie Manet, 16 ans, 29 octobre 1895 : “M. Degas ne pense plus qu’à la photographie, il nous invite tous à aller dîner chez lui la semaine prochaine, il fera notre photographie à la lumière ; seulement il faut poser 3 minutes ; il a voulu voir si nous étions de bons modèles et a fait poser M. Renoir qui s’est mis à rire.

Paule a parlé de l’article de M. Mauclair alors M. Degas s’est emporté en disant : “Ah, les critiques ! ce sont eux qui commandent maintenant, la peinture leur appartient parce qu’ils parlent d’un bleu, etc.”

M. Mallarmé écoutant cela paraissait fort malheureux, M. Renoir rayonnait, car sa pensée sur les critiques est la même que celle de M. Degas.”

(Julie Manet (fille de Berthe Morisot et d’Eugène Manet, frère d’Edouard Manet),
Journal 1893-1899,
Sa jeunesse parmi les peintres impressionnistes et les hommes de lettres,
Librairie C. Klincksieck, page 71)

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