Edgar Degas and photography

When I think of Edgar Degas, I think of Impressionist painting and ballet dancers – more than half of his art works depict dancers. What I don’t associate with him is photography, so I was a bit surprised and intrigued to see that he spent some creative time using a camera. Below is a self-portrait, taken sometime around 1895, posing with “Zoé Closier” behind him. Who is Zoé Closier? The page on this art work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art doesn’t say who she is, but a little research seems to suggest she was his maid. I found a story that suggested Degas liked to have her read aloud to him at the breakfast table. Seeing the glass in the lower left corner of this image, it makes me wonder if he’s seated at the table while taking this photo? Posing for a photo with his maid had me wondering, was Degas ever married? I learned that he never married and spent the last years of his life, nearly blind, restlessly wandering the streets of Paris before dying in 1917.

Edgar Degas Self Portrait photograph
Edgar Degas, “Self-Portrait with Zoé Closier,” circa 1895, from the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Funny how finding one photograph and researching it has me learning several new things about Degas. So I went looking for more, and found this one, a street scene with a group of well-dressed people. Titled “Street Scene, La-Queue-en-Brie (Val-de-Marne),” circa 1896, it also taught me a few things. La Queue-en-Brie is an area about 11 miles outside the center of Paris, and has been populated as a settlement since pre-historic times. What do we mean by prehistoric France? Stone tools indicate that early humans were present in France at least 1.57 million years ago! I had no idea! Of course that has nothing to do with this picture, I’m going off on factual tangents, but the picture makes me wonder, was this photograph by Degas a study for a painting? Or were these just friends of his? If anyone can tie this photo to a painting by Degas, please let us know in the comments section below.

Edgar Degas photograph street scene
Edgar Degas, ” Street Scene, La-Queue-en-Brie (Val-de-Marne),” circa 1896, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Speaking of tying Degas photos to paintings, I did find a case of this, where he was using photographs most likely as studies for paintings. In this case, I’m going to just provide links as I’ve found in the past that sometimes I run into issues and get some negative feedback when showing an art historical nude, even if it’s someone’s back or something innocent or widely known anyway. But I still want to make this point because from an art historical perspective, I think it’s very interesting to see how Impressionist painters – whom one would assume were painting from first-hand observation – might have occasionally used a camera for creating a study.

At any rate, here’s my comparison – many people are quite familiar with Degas’ painting of a woman drying her back after taking a bath, seen here in the collection of the National Gallery in London. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has this Degas photo of a woman drying her back after a bath. Now clearly the photo is a completely different pose than the painting, so it wasn’t a direct study for that particular painting. But it’s still interesting that he was having models pose for photographs, presumably for ideas for his paintings. In this case, the theme of a “bather” is in both the photo and the painting, and Degas certainly made more than one painting of a woman drying her back after a bath – here’s another in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

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