Edgar Degas was born in Paris on July 19, 1834. He was the eldest of five children. Madame de Gas belonged to a moderately wealthy French family that settled in America. Degas was fond of his mother and her death in 1847 was a deep personal tragedy. His father, who was a banker, encouraged his artistic tendencies.
He received a classical education at Lycee Louis-le-Grand from 1845 to 1852. In 1852 he transformed a room from the family home into a studio. He made copies of the old masters in the Louvre and studied the prints of Dürer, Mantegna, Rembrandt and Goya. In 1854 he studied with Louis Lamothe who was a disciple of Ingres (for whom Degas would retain great respect). In 1855 Degas began study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but found the course too restricting. He preferred home study of classical tradition. Through hospitable family members he was able to make regular trips to Italy.
In 1859 Degas opened a studio in Paris where he focused on portraiture and historical subjects. He finally abandoned the historical genre in 1866 for several reasons. In 1862 Degas had met Manet who was interested in themes from modern life. He also met novelist Edmond Duranty a passionate believer in realism who wanted to remove the barriers between art and life. Furthermore Degas became a regular at cafe Guerbois where many artists associated with Impressionism would meet.
His changing views were reflected in his art during the late 1860's. He turned to the racecourse and theatre for inspiration.
During the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871) Degas served in the artillery. He contracted a severe chill during his service, which caused the first trouble with his eyes.
Degas lived with relatives in New Orleans, Louisiana from 1872 to 1873. One of the paintings he did there and then brought back to France, 'The Cotton Exchange at New Orleans' got him favorable attention, and became his only work purchased by a museum during his lifetime.
On his return he opened a studio, concentrating mostly on themes from modern life: washerwomen, acrobats, dancers, singers, etc. He also did female nudes, which, along with dancers, became his favourite subject mater.
In 1874, when Degas' father died, Degas was left with vast debts. He was forced to sell off some of his art collection.
From 1874 Degas sent works to the impressionist group shows. In 1881 he showed The little dancer of fourteen years, the only sculpture exhibited during his life.
In the 1880s, when his eyesight began to fail, Degas shifted his talent to sculpture and pastel, which did not require such acute vision. By the 1890's he could only work on large compositions and in 1908 he had to give up art completely.
Famous and revered, Degas died in Paris on 27 September 1917. He is buried in the Cimetière de Montmartre, Paris, France. Degas left more than 2000 oil paintings and pastels and 150 sculptures.