The eldest son of a French banker and a Creole woman from New Orleans, Hillare Germain Edgar Degas spent many hours of his youth roaming the great galleries of the Louvre. While most noted for his pastels, Degas also demonstrated great facility with painting, sketching, and sculpture and produced an astounding body of work during his long career.
As a student, Degas had the opportunity to study under the great French painter, Jean-Auguste—Dominique Ingres. Legend reports that it was Degas who carried the master out of his studio when Ingres suffered a seizure that took his life. One of Degas' most beloved possessions was a chalk study of a hand by Ingres, about which he said, “Look at that hand! One hand by Ingres is worthy of a place in the Louvre.”
An extended holiday to New Orleans at age 39 proved to be a turning point for Degas. At the request of family members, he did many portraits of his Louisiana relatives, but grew dissatisfied with their lack of patience and demands for “exactness.” Upon returning to France, he found renewed appreciation for the cultural and artistic freedoms there and began to paint with abandon in a style true to his spirit. Interestingly, until an exhibit in New Orleans in May of 1999, the portraits and landscapes from his trip in America had never been available for public viewing
The most visible influence on Degas' work is that of Japanese prints, as he incorporated their ideas of space, depth, and composition. In his later years, Degas gained notoriety for the subject matter of his work; rather than portraying women in full social costume with hair and make-up done “just-so,” Degas depicted them engaged in ordinary (and often ungraceful) tasks of living and grooming. In so doing, he challenged modern convention and viewer sensibilities and caused quite a scandal.
Despite being a man of independent means, Degas nonetheless lived in squalor. He had few friends other than fellow artists Mary Cassatt and Suzanne Valadon, and, blinded in old age, spent his last years virtually alone.