Edgar Degas’ name is synonymous with the Impressionist movement and it has been since the artistic group gained prominence in the 1870s. In fact he is listed in most texts as one of the movement’s founding members, but in this post we’re going to take a closer look at the details behind Degas’ involvement with the collective, whether he adhered to the ideals and notions that defined the Impressionists, and perhaps most importantly, whether he considered himself to be one.

A year prior to the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, Degas had returned from a trip to visit his brother in New Orleans, Louisiana, and was suffering from an eye infection that he thought would threaten his artistic career. Soon after he had returned to Paris his father had died, and as a result of the debts uncovered in his father’s estate Degas found himself in a position, for the first time in his life, in which he was dependant on his art sales to generate an income.

Degas’ acquaintances Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro and Paul Cezanne had formed the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers) in order to exhibit their work independently from the Salon. Degas was disillusioned with the Salon at the time and so his decision to exhibit with them was in part due to his urgent need to sell work and the fact that they were one of the only other commercial avenues available to him. Degas helped to organise the First Impressionist Show at Monet’s behest, and as it turned out he was one of the most successful artists at the show, selling seven out of ten of his works on display. This popularity was to some extent a result of his work not being as radical as the others.

It was at the same show that the group were labelled the ‘Impressionists’ although Degas vehemently rejected the label throughout his career, referring to the group as ‘The Independents’ and to himself as a Realist. He participated in seven out of the eight Impressionist Exhibitions but he never engaged in that fundamental tenet of Impressionism, en plein air painting. In fact he ridiculed the others like Monet and Renoir for painting outdoors, preferring instead the control of his studio and the soft light of gas lamps.

The conservative Degas also enjoyed rules, and he especially enjoyed creating them, much to the chagrin of the other Impressionists. He exerted a high level of influence and control over the Impressionist shows, and his inclusion of many other Salon artists at the exhibitions was a source of friction within the group. He was inflexible and didn’t like to view himself as an artistic revolutionary; indeed he disliked the scandal that often surrounded the Impressionists and the publicity and recognition that many of them sought.

Finally there was Degas’ wonderfully offensive personality, which has been cited by many as a major reason for the disbanding of the movement. Unlike the others, who according to most accounts worked together harmoniously, Degas had persistent conflicts with others in the group, and his ever-increasing anti-Semitic tendencies proved to be the final dividing factor between him and the rest of the Impressionists. His work had never really been definitively Impressionist in its style or execution, his involvement with them had been driven in part by financial requirement and by the end they all despised him. As Renoir said, “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay till the end.”