What Role Did Photography Play For The Artist Edgar Degas?

Dancers Practicing at the Barre (1877) painting in high resolution by Edgar Degas. Original from The MET Museum. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Photography played a significant role in the artistic journey of Edgar Degas, the renowned French artist. Often associated with his iconic paintings and sculptures, Degas’ engagement with photography was not only innovative but also transformative. His exploration of this new medium allowed him to experiment with composition, lighting, and perspective, pushing the boundaries of traditional art forms.

While Degas did not consider himself a photographer, he recognized the potential photography held as a tool for artistic expression. He used it as a source of inspiration, capturing snapshots of fleeting moments and scenes that would later serve as references for his paintings and sculptures. By incorporating elements of photography into his work, Degas expanded his artistic palette and developed a unique visual style that blended the real and the imagined.

What Role Did Photography Play for the Artist Edgar Degas?

Exploring the Use of Photography in Edgar Degas’ Art

Edgar Degas, a renowned French artist of the 19th century, is best known for his paintings and sculptures that captured the essence of daily life in the bustling streets of Paris. However, lesser-known is his fascination with photography and the role it played in shaping his artistic vision. While Degas primarily worked in traditional mediums like oil and pastel, he often turned to photography as a source of inspiration and a tool for experimentation. Through the lens of a camera, Degas explored new perspectives, compositions, and techniques that would inform his paintings and drawings.

One of the ways photography influenced Degas’ art was through its ability to freeze a moment in time. In the mid-19th century, photography was still a relatively new medium, and its ability to capture the fleeting nature of light and movement fascinated Degas. He recognized that a photograph could capture a gesture, a pose, or even a split second of action that would be nearly impossible to replicate in a painting or drawing. This inspired Degas to incorporate more dynamic and spontaneous poses in his figurative works, infusing them with a sense of movement and vitality.

Moreover, photography provided Degas with a new way of studying the human form. He would often use photographs as reference material for his figure studies, capturing the nuances of posture, gesture, and expression. By studying photographs, Degas could observe the human figure from different angles, in different lighting conditions, and in various stages of movement. This deepened his understanding of human anatomy and informed the way he depicted the human body in his artwork. Degas’ use of photography allowed him to capture the essence of his subjects with a level of realism and authenticity.

The Influence of Photography on Degas’ Composition

Photography also played a crucial role in shaping Degas’ approach to composition. As a painter, Degas was always interested in exploring innovative ways to frame his subjects and create visually engaging compositions. He found inspiration in the composition techniques used in photography, such as cropping, framing, and the use of negative space. Degas would often experiment with unconventional cropping and framing in his paintings, choosing to focus on specific details or viewpoints that were reminiscent of photographs.

In his series of ballerina paintings, for example, Degas would often zoom in on a single dancer, capturing her in the midst of a graceful movement or in a candid moment backstage. These compositions, influenced by photography, created an intimate and voyeuristic view of the dancers’ world. By adopting these composition techniques, Degas was able to bring a sense of immediacy and authenticity to his paintings.

Additionally, the use of negative space in Degas’ compositions was directly influenced by photography. Negative space refers to the empty or unoccupied areas in a composition. Through the use of negative space, Degas created a sense of balance and harmony in his artwork. He would often leave areas of his paintings blank, allowing the viewer’s eyes to rest and creating a visual tension between the subject and the surrounding empty space. This technique, borrowed from photography, added depth and visual interest to Degas’ compositions.

Photography as an Artistic Tool for Degas

While photography heavily influenced Degas’ artistic style and composition, it also served as a visual diary for the artist. Degas was an avid photographer, often carrying his camera with him wherever he went. He used photography to document the world around him, capturing everyday scenes, friends, family, and even his own studio. These photographs provided Degas with a personal archive of his life and experiences and served as a reference for his artwork.

Furthermore, photography allowed Degas to experiment with new techniques and artistic processes. He would often manipulate his photographs, experimenting with multiple exposures, cropping, and even adding color to create unique effects. These experiments helped Degas push the boundaries of traditional artistic practices and develop his own distinctive style.

Overall, photography played a multifaceted role in Degas’ artistic journey. It served as a source of inspiration, a tool for experimentation, and a means of documenting the world around him. By embracing photography, Degas was able to expand his artistic horizons and push the boundaries of traditional artistic practices. His incorporation of photography into his creative process not only influenced his own artwork but also paved the way for future generations of artists to explore the interplay between different mediums.


Edgar Degas’ exploration of photography during the 19th century had a profound impact on his artistic style and approach. By integrating photography into his creative process, Degas was able to capture fleeting moments, study the human form in new ways, and experiment with innovative compositional techniques. Photography served as a source of inspiration, a tool for documentation, and a means of pushing the boundaries of traditional artistic practices. Degas’ engagement with photography not only shaped his own artwork but also contributed to the development of a new visual language and a deeper understanding of the possibilities of artistic expression.

Key Takeaways: What Role Did Photography Play for the Artist Edgar Degas?

  • Photography provided a source of inspiration for Edgar Degas, influencing his compositions and subject matter.
  • Through photography, Degas experimented with different angles and perspectives, which he incorporated into his paintings and drawings.
  • Photography allowed Degas to capture fleeting moments and movement, which he then translated into his dynamic artworks.
  • Degas used photography as a tool for studying light and shadow, enhancing the realism and visual impact of his artworks.
  • Although Degas was not a photographer himself, his engagement with photography pushed the boundaries of traditional artistic practices.

Photography played a significant role in Edgar Degas’ artistic career, influencing his subject matter and technique.

Degas was known for his paintings and sculptures of dancers, and photography provided him with a new way to study their movements and poses.

He often took photographs as a reference for his artwork, enabling him to capture the fleeting moments and dynamic compositions that characterized his dance scenes.

Additionally, photography played a role in Degas’ experimentation with perspective and composition, allowing him to explore new ways of depicting space and movement.

By incorporating elements of photography into his artistic process, Degas was able to bring a new level of realism and vitality to his works.

Overall, photography served as a valuable tool for Degas, helping him to enhance his understanding of movement, capture fleeting moments, and push the boundaries of artistic representation.


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