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Edgar Degas

By the Sea
Edgar Degas<br>French, 1834-1917<br><I>Beside the Sea</I>, 1869<br>Pastel on tan paper<br>Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton
zoom Edgar Degas
French, 1834-1917
Beside the Sea, 1869
Pastel on tan paper
Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton


Edgar Degas is known mainly as a figure artist, but he also painted some landscapes. In 1869, a trip to the seaport of Boulogne, in northern France, inspired Degas to create over forty images of the seashore and sand dunes. These calm, empty scenes look very different from his lively ballet and racetrack paintings.

Degas made his seaside pictures with pastels, an artist’s tool similar to crayons. Most artists think of pastels as good for sketching, but Degas used them for finished works as well. (By the Sea is considered finished because he signed it.) He became so skilled with pastels that eventually this became his favorite medium, or art-making material. Because pastels dry fairly quickly, he could instantly add more color to his compositions. Today Degas is still regarded as the most important pastel painter.

Although a box of pastels is portable, Degas may not have painted this scene while looking at it. He preferred to work in his studio. Unlike many of his fellow Impressionist artists, he rarely painted outdoors. Partly this was because of vision problems, which began when he was in his thirties. He found bright lights unbearable and dreaded being out in the sun. Painting outdoors also went against his belief that a painting should come from an artist’s memory and imagination.

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1. Claude Monet, another Impressionist artist, believed in painting his landscapes outdoors (en plein air, in French).
Claude Monet, The Seashore at Sainte-Adresse, 1864, oil on canvas, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bennett
2. Because of their mysteriousness, Degas’s seascapes have been compared to those of James McNeill Whistler, an American artist who lived in France.
James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: The River at Battersea, 1878, lithotint, The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund


April 2009