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The Influence of Photography in The Works of Edgar Degas

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Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” – Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965). 

Meaning “drawing with light”, photography essentially combines two distinct sciences, optics – the crossing of light rays to form an image inside a camera, and chemistry – to allow the image to be captured and recorded permanently onto a light-sensitive surface. Invented in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), during the time of the industrial revolution, photography was generally accepted into society, however, it was also criticised because people thought that it was a threat to art with some describing it as; “the mortal enemy of art”. Artists were worried that photography would replace art because of the “camera’s illusion of truthfulness.” After Niépce died, Louis Daguerre produced the Daguerreotype in 1839 where the process was accurate and cheap, becoming an immediate success to society. Snapshot photography showed photographs which had not been staged or posed and did not replicate professional camerawork. This type of photography first became possible in 1888 when George Eastman (1854-1932) introduced the first Kodak camera for $25 and people moved from constantly sitting still, afraid to blur the photos to being able to capture lively everyday motion as by having 100 photo storage and being able to have them developed and a refreshed camera meant that people weren’t afraid to use up photo space. People were able to experiment with unconventional angles and ideas, whether it was an image of someone jumping in the air or someone riding on a bicycle, as if after decades of stiffness in a studio, this invention affected people’s behaviour and views towards photography. However, the ability to carry cameras around caused a controversy of if your picture was taken without your permission while out in public as a picture could be taken of you unawares unlike before it was invented where people couldn’t move, had to cooperate a lot and give your consent. Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) was a photographer who experimented with stages of movement too rapid for the human eye to observe, creating new forms of scientific study, especially with racehorses. The world became fascinated with the anatomy of horses and when captured by the snapshot camera, how, at one point, there are no legs on the ground when they gallop, which had never been observed before. Long before photography was invented, in the 17th century, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) used the ‘camera obscura’, in the form of a room with the windows shuttered, with a small hole in a blind as an aid to his painting. Light entered the room through the hole and cast an image onto a screen or onto the wall opposite to form an optical image which had never been seen before and allowed the artist to accurately produce a ‘photographic perspective’ shown in paintings such as, ‘Officer and Laughing Girl’ (1655-1660) by Vermeer where the closer foreground of the man is visually larger than that of the girl, encouraging the idea of the use of the ‘camera obscura’. It was inevitable that photography would influence visual artists, where some rejected this new technology but others embraced it, including Edgar Degas (1834-1917).

Context of Degas

Edgar Degas was a French painter, printmaker and sculptor and was part of the Impressionist (1865-1895) and Realist (1848-1900) movements in the 19th century. In his early life, Degas was encouraged to pursue the arts, however not as a career. After gaining a baccalaureate in literature, he moved to Paris and was admitted into the École des Beaux-Arts in 1855, studying drawing with Louis Lamothe, an academic artist. In 1864, Degas met Édouard Manet 1832-1883) at the Louvre, where he was introduced to Impressionism (1872-1892) and his work was exhibited at the Paris Salon. This was the changing point for Degas’ career in the art world and he gained inspiration from Paris’ cafés, shops and operas and became well known for his close observation, capturing detail of his surroundings. Artists which influenced Degas included photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), whose photographs showed the motions of a racehorse and people. Japanese prints were also an influence on Degas, the bold, linear compositions and the sense of flatness was different to Western art. Degas’ approach to painting was to capture images in strange positions and unusual angles, experimenting with different compositions and showing a clear classical tendency in his art which differed from other impressionist artists who preferred colour and textured pieces. Furthermore, Degas preferred to work with sketches and memory but the other Impressionist artists who preferred to paint “en plein air”. Degas’ work was always beautifully composed and showed the free style that he possessed. Degas was introduced to the ballet world, he felt excited both his taste of classical beauty and his eye for realism, and by watching these shows, he found a new way to draw and paint. At first by painting images from an audiences point of view, Degas wanted to view behind the scenes of the dancers in the practice studios, saying that; ‘One knows that in your world? Queens are made of distance and greasepaint.’ By going backstage, Degas could really find out more about the ballet dancers world.

‘Dance Class (1871)’ shows a simplistic and linear dance room with ballet dancers, clumped together to the left of the painting, all pictured to visualise the innocence of the ballet dancers, shown by the contrasting of white tutus with the dull brown colours of the dance room walls as it makes them stand out to the viewer. The natural light of the room appears to come from a window which can’t be seen if the large mirror on the wall wasn’t present. This complex idea of reflections from the different mirrors in the painting gives the viewer a change of perspective, showing the back of the dancers and a view which cannot be seen without them. The smaller mirror, in the centre of the painting, changes the linear room, creating more diverse shapes within the piece. The focal point of the piece is to the left of the painting, where there are many ballet dancers behind a grand piano, all looking in a similar direction as if they are watching the girl dancing at the front of the whole painting. On one hand, it doesn’t show a photography influence as Degas hasn’t created a unusual perspective where he could have included the entire height of the room, instead of only focusing on the dancers. The setting would have been shown more clearly if the viewpoint was further away from the focal point and the full extent of the building was shown into more detail. However, there is still evidence of a photography influence as Degas has clearly tried to picture even the smallest details in the painting, including the door slightly ajar on the right and the dancers all around the room all moving individually, as they were practicing their dance in front of the teacher sat slightly to the left of the piece, in front of the cluster of dancers. The violin case at the bottom of the foreground, helps to draw the viewer back into the centre of the painting after looking at the focal point to the left. The mood of the painting could be described as quiet, with only the sounds of the violin playing from the teacher, used as music for the dancer in the foreground to dance to and the small sounds of the dancers feet as they move in different directions whilst dancing and the atmosphere could be quite intense, with the dancer in the foreground, concentrating to get the dance routine correct in front of her teacher, but at the same time, it would be calm, with the violin helping the dancers become more relaxed in the dance room.

However, some of Degas’ pieces of work, such as ‘Portrait of Diego Martelli (1879)’ painted before snapshot photography was widely spread, included photographic features, such as cropping, strange viewpoints and the sense of reality, therefore could suggest that Degas’ ‘Kodak eye’ could have been used without the influence of photography. Degas wanted to produce pieces with unexpected viewpoints, strange perspectives and abrupt cutting off of forms which characterised his art .

The influence of photography on Degas

However, after focusing on different media’s such as photography, Degas saw it as “an image of magical instantaneity” and he started to produce work which was unexpected and irregular in composition, resembling images that could be caught on camera. He believed that a photograph provided a new pair of eyes during a period when his eyesight was failing but he used this as a powerful tool to remember his loved ones when they died. Muybridge, like Degas, was a photographer who was interested in capturing motion and in 1880, he took hundreds of photographs, mainly of animals or humans, showing movement which could not be seen by the naked eye. This led Degas to use this technique to show movement, for example, the blurred legs and neck of a racehorse which was a new experience for Degas and many other artists at this time. Degas once said; “Art is not what you see, but what you want others to see” and photography especially helped Degas capture the movement of bodies which the human eye could not capture itself. By discovering Muybridge’s multiple, moving photographs at high shutter speeds, he could study movements and gestures better. Particularly in his ballet dancer paintings, Degas used photography when; “figures are cut off and positioned off centre. Sight-lines are high and oblique.” Degas eventually learned the importance and advantages of photography when he started to lose sight as it provided him with a new pair of eyes and before photography was introduced to him, he hadn’t thought about cutting off a figure at the edge or pushing the action of the image into the corners and leaving the centre empty and this new art media gave Degas an advantage to producing more interesting, realistic work.

‘The Dance Foyer at the Opera (1872)’ shows a traditional, grand studio full of ballet dancers, to the point where they look minuscule compared with the beautiful grandeur of the practice room. The natural light floods into the room from one direction. As the light hits the ballerinas, it illuminates their figures and the delicacy of their tutus. There is a mirror which could be depicted as another room behind, creating a sense of depth which intrigues the viewer into visualising the deeper meaning of the painting and also, contrasting with the linear shapes of the architecture. The focal point of the piece is off centre, slightly to the right, where there is a cluster of ballerinas grouped together, moving in angular and distorted movements. The girl on the left has been singled out to dance in front of the rest of the ballerinas, however, the light is shining on the group to the right, which could show different views at the time and Degas is shown as the singled out person on the left trying to show everyone his views. This could be linked to his style of art and how he wants to show everyone how and what he sees. The chair in the foreground of the painting, helps the painting become a circular shape, involving the viewer. This can also be added with the dancer at the bottom right corner of the painting, pointing her legs towards the centre and creating a more circled picture and draws the viewer back into the image, rather than a linear piece of the chair wasn’t there or the dancer wasn’t positioned in this way. The tiny details in the painting such as the door on the left and the notice board at the back of the practice room, shows how Degas, who was also a photographer, wanted to portray photography capturing every single, small detail. The door on the left with the ballet dancer behind it, could be a door to Degas’ past because the dancers are mirroring the same position. However, the lone person on the left is moving forward with their idea casually and naturalistically. The mood and atmosphere of the painting is silence with muted sounds from the piano, matching the colour and atmosphere of the whole painting. The lighting is soft and a controlled movement of dancers is a large factor in the piece and overall, the piece gives the viewer a sense of relaxation, with the soft, tranquil colours and a calming atmosphere.

This painting is very carefully and cleverly composed but he makes it look casual, accidental and natural. It shows us that photography, had an immense impact on the way Degas painted, whether it was the viewpoint or the effects of using negative space to create an image which had the similar features of a photograph which wasn’t set up and using the sense of motion in a picture to show realist view which Degas wanted to portray, photography helped to boost his career, helping him produce a range of incredibly realistic pieces that no other Impressionist artist would have produced.

As well as Degas, there were many other artists who were influenced by photography when it was invented. Photography provided a new insight to science and art combined, so artists experimented with photography to further their work. Cézanne used photography from magazine illustrations to paint flowers, or even a self-portrait. He experimented with perspective and emphasised each individual object rather than the scene as a whole, making his work more eye-catching. His work was influenced by copying a photo unlike Degas, who would try to make the pieces look like a photograph using movement, composition and the sense of realism. Thomas Le Clear (1818-1882), an American artist, used an early daguerreotype of the two children, kept in the family to produce this painting, using the idea of the tension between photography and painting from the children being surrounded by portraits. The dog, entering the door may be a reference to the early photography problem of limitations to only still subjects. Degas worked with a similar technique to Le Clear, using composition ideas of cutting off parts of subjects to create a photographic idea within his paintings of ballet dancers and racehorses. Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), a French painter and sculptor, also adopted photography when it was invented as another means of capturing aesthetic goals and to boost his documentations of real life. In his piece, Phryne before the Areopagus (1861), it shows a nude woman, based on a photograph by Nadar (1820 – 1910), displaying an actual image rather than an ideal image of the woman’s body.

Conclusion

Looking back to when photography was first introduced, one might say it could have signalled the death of painting, it was a medium which completed the same function, however much more quickly and the rapid commercialization meant that many painters were tempted to take up photography instead of their painting careers. The photographs of portraits were cheaper and easier to produce than painted portraits and therefore the portraits continue to be a privilege to the rich and photography became more widespread to range of people. As the painters market fell drastically, people were certain that photography signifies the end of art and that painting would become dead as a result of it . The new invention of photography liberated artists to use it as a creative tool, freeing them from just copying their subjects and they could experiment with different qualities that wouldn’t have been thought of before the invention was introduced. Painters, including Degas, would create paintings with radical cropping, giving a spontaneous feel from the positions of the characters and the unusual compositions. Distorted perspectives, for example, extreme close ups or overhead viewpoints, could associate the viewing of the world as a ‘flat pattern’. The successes of capturing movement, faster than the human eye, gave artists unseen accurate information as to how things moved, first experimented by Muybridge and the continuous snapshots of racehorses, eventually expanded the vision that cameras could obtain to a precise action of a raindrop falling into a puddle, being able to see each and every movement with this extraordinary vision. Artists exploited photography, by using it as a tool to record landscapes or a specific moment in time with the portable cameras, avoiding using models who would have to sit tediously whilst the painting was taking place and this would enable the artists to sit in their studios, working from their recorded image rather than painting ‘en plein air’.

It is true that the invention of photography drove some artists out of work, however, on the other hand, it provided artists a creative tool alongside their work by expanding their visual resources and the ability of producing an image of reality by changing their compositions and perspectives in their paintings. Degas approached photography openly, and by experimenting with different ideas and subjects, he was able to create many beautiful paintings, inspired by the Impressionism and Realist movements which could link into photography inspiration. 

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The Influence Of Photography In The Works Of Edgar Degas. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-influence-of-photography-in-the-works-of-edgar-degas/
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