Throughout his life Edgar Degas was known for his argumentative nature, for his at times cruel wit and for his staunch and vehement opinions on political and social issues. Some have even hypothesised that Degas may have deliberately cultivated a reputation as a misanthropic bachelor in order to avoid social interaction. He said himself that, “the artist must live alone, and his private life must remain unknown.”
Degas did for the most part live alone and while many aspects of his private life may have remained a mystery, he didn’t hesitate in voicing his private opinions, or indeed in acting on them. Despite his apparent aim of becoming a social pariah, Degas was clearly an active part of the Parisian artistic community until the late 1880s. After all, he was instrumental in the organisation of the First Impressionist Exhibition (some other Impressionists might even have said ‘too instrumental’) and he regularly met with and collaborated with the likes of Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley. So in spite of his conservative opinions and antagonistic tendencies, and despite being described by novelist George Moore as an “old curmudgeon”, it seems that Degas was still able to operate as a member of the Impressionist brethren. So what changed?
Well, by the mid-1870s, Degas’s anti-Semitism, and indeed his adherence to fundamental Catholicism, had become markedly apparent both in his behaviour and in the work that he produced. Incidents from the time include his firing of a model after learning that she was a Protestant. Although he had painted Jewish subjects in previous works, his paintings from the mid-1870s begin to depict Jews in an increasingly anti-Semitic light (possibly influenced by the collapse of his family’s business and his association between Jews and financial success), culminating in Portraits At The Stock Exchange from 1879, which features imagery taken directly from anti-Semitic cartoons that circulated around Paris at the time.
Degas’ behaviour has in some instances been listed as a contributing factor to the break up of the Impressionist movement in the 1880s, and by the 1890s Degas’ anti-Semitism was to reach new lows. The Dreyfuss Affar began with the November 1894 conviction of Alfred Dreyfuss, a French artillery officer of Jewish descent, on charges of spying for the German Empire. Dreyfuss was to spend five years living in inhumane conditions in a penal colony in French Guiana before being brought back to France for a retrial in 1899 in which all the allegations against him were proven to be baseless.
The event divided French society in the 1890s and early 1900s, and while most members of the artistic community, being somewhat progressive and liberal at heart, sided with the Dreyfusards, arguing that the case against Dreyfuss had been a cover up by the French authorities, Degas was a steadfast anti-Dreyfusard and therefore anti-Semite. In the wake of the Dreyfuss Affair he broke off all of his friendships with Jewish friends, publicly disavowed previous friendships with Jewish artists and refused to hire models that he believed might be of Jewish origin.
The extremity of Degas’ views left him isolated from the rest of the Impressionists and even Renoir, who for so long had tolerated Degas’ behaviour deserted him, saying, “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.” Degas spent the rest of his life, right until his death in 1917, an outspoken anti-Semite and anti-Dreyfusard, and, as he always seemed to have wanted to be, alone.