Stolen Painting by Degas Discovered

Mar 1, 2018 By Deepa Gopal
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Last week, French authorities in the town of Seine-et-Marne discovered a surprising find in the luggage compartment of a bus. A painting, titled The Chorus Singers, by artist Edgar Degas in 1877!

The painting was stolen in 2009 while on temporary exhibition at the Musée Cantini in Marseilles, France. It is currently back home in the Musée d’Orsay, where it will be featured in a “Degas at the Opera” exhibition in September 2019.

The painting’s recovery was hailed as a "precious work that represents French impressionist heritage” by France’s Culture Minister, Françoise Nyssen. But who is Degas? And why is his work so important?

Who was Edgar Degas?

Edgar Degas (pronounced Deh-GAH) was born in Paris, France in 1834 into an aristocratic family. He was the eldest of five children and his father, a banker. His mother was an opera singer who died when he was 13, leaving the father to raise the five children.

Degas majored in classics and music at his secondary school, where is also discovered his love for painting and art. After graduating at age 18, Degas took up a job as a copyist at the Louvre Museum in Paris, making copies of famous Renaissance paintings. After a brief time studying law, Degas was encouraged by his father to join the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts college. There he studied drawing under the renowned art teacher Louis Lamothe.

He then traveled to Italy, where he stayed for three years and studied the works of great Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci. His stay with his aunt's family also led him to his first masterpiece - The Bellelli Family. He returned to France as an artist, established himself in the art circles of Paris, and exhibited his works in many exhibitions. He never married and remained a prolific painter until his death in 1917. 

Impressionist or Realist?

Degas is traditionally considered an impressionist artist. Impressionists use bright colors, and short and bold brush strokes to capture the outdoor scenes and the play of light. 

However, while Degas was part of the Impressionist Movement, he considered himself to be more of a realist. Even though he liked the bold play of colors, his paintings had clearly defined outlines. Also unlike impressionists who painted outdoors, Degas always chose to paint indoors from memory, photographs and using live models. His subjects were centered around Parisian life, the city's boulevards and cafes, horse-racing, and women. He also absorbed ideas from Japanese prints and Eastern art which reflected in his works where the images were either cropped (like a partial hand) or asymmetric (unusual angles of ballet dancers). 

While his early works were in oil, his later paintings were in pastels. As he started losing his eyesight with age, Degas experimented with sculpture. His only publicly released statue was The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, a wax figure of a dancer with real hair and a cloth tutu. Nearly 150 sculptures in various states of completion were discovered after his death.

Degas has left a rich legacy and imprint in the world - a true artist who supported his peers and inspired the next generation of artists.

Sources: Guardian, Brittanica, Metmuseum.org, Biography, theartstory.org