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Painter and sculptor Edgar Degas was a highly celebrated 19th-century French Impressionist whose work helped shape the fine art landscape for years to come.
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Their meetings coincided with tumultuous times in the history of France. In July 1870, the Franco-Prussian War broke out and the highly nationalistic Degas volunteered for the French National Guard. At the war's conclusion in 1871,
the infamous Paris Commune seized control of the capital for two terrifying months before Adolphe Thiers reestablished the Third Republic in a bloody civil war. Degas largely avoided the tumult of the Paris Commune by taking an extended trip to visit relatives in New Orleans.
Returning to Paris near the end of 1873, Degas, along with Monet, Sisley and several other painters, formed the Société Anonyme des Artistes, a group committed to putting on exhibitions free of the Salon's control. The group of painters would come to be known as the Impressionists (although Degas preferred the term "realist" to describe his own work), and on April 15, 1874, they held the first Impressionist exhibition. The paintings Degas exhibited were modern portraits of modern women — milliners, laundresses and ballet dancers — painted from radical perspectives. Over the course of the next 12 years, the group staged eight such Impressionist exhibitions, and Degas exhibited at all of them. His most famous paintings during these years were The Dancing Class (1871), The Dance Class (1874), Woman Ironing (1873) and Dancers Practicing at the Bar (1877). In 1880, he also sculpted The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancerl, a sculpture so hauntingly evocative that while some critics called it brilliant, others condemned him as cruel for having made it. While Degas' paintings are not overtly political, they do reflect France's changing social and economic environment. His paintings portray the growth of the bourgeoisie, the emergence of a service economy and the widespread entrance of women into the workplace.
In 1886, at the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in Paris, Degas exhibited 10 paintings of nude women in various stages of bathing. These nude paintings were the talk of the exhibition and also the source of controversy; some called the women "ugly" while others praised the honesty of his depictions. Degas went on to paint hundreds of studies of nude women. He also continued to paint dancers, contrasting the awkward humility of the dancer backstage with her majestic grace in the midst of performance.
During the mid-1890s, an episode known as the Dreyfus Affair sharply divided French society. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish captain in the French military, was convicted of treason on spying charges. Although evidence that proved Dreyfus's innocence surfaced in 1896, rampant anti-Semitism kept him from being exonerated for another 10 years. With the country deeply divided between those in support of Dreyfus and those against him, Degas sided with those whose anti-Semitism blinded them to Dreyfus' innocence. His stance against Dreyfus cost him many friends and much respect within the typically more tolerant avant-garde art circles.
Degas lived on well into the 20th century, and although he painted less during these years, he promoted his work tirelessly and became an avid art collector.
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Derived from Claude Monet's piece entitled Impression, the term "impressionism" was created to describe the work of a select group of Parisian painters in the late 19th century. With their thin brush strokes and explosion of color and lighting on mundane subjects, impressionists painters like Monet, Mary Cassatt, and Alfred Sisley confounded critics, defied conventions, and sparked scandal. A century and a half later, they are among the most revered and influentional artists of all time.
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