The artists London and Paris 1870-1910

Edgar Degas L'Absinthe

Edgar Degas
L’Absinthe 1875–6
Oil on canvas

Lent by the Musée d’Orsay, Paris
© photo RMN H. Lewandowski

Edgar Degas 1834–1917

The young Degas was destined for a legal career, but by the age of twenty-one he had decided to become an artist. His training, under a former pupil of Ingres and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, encouraged a strong sense of draughtsmanship. After three years in Italy, copying chiefly Renaissance drawings and frescoes, Degas returned to Paris in 1859. By the late 1860s he was a member of Edouard Manet’s circle of innovative painters who gathered at the Café Guerbois.

During the 1870s Degas exhibited regularly in both Paris and London. His paintings of ballet dancers, racecourses, theatres and cafés were notable for their unusual viewpoints and asymmetrical compositions. By the end of the decade he was also experimenting with printmaking and pastels.

Degas occasionally visited England, where his works were bought by several collectors and artists there, including Sickert, who remained a lifelong friend. As a result, Degas’s work influenced many British artists.

From the 1890s, as he began to lose his eyesight, Degas worked mainly in pastel, studying dancers, and women bathing. He also made clay and wax sculptures of dancers, posthumously cast in bronze. His funeral, at Montmartre cemetery, was attended by over a hundred people, including Claude Monet and the influential dealer, Georges Durand-Ruel.

Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942

Sickert was born in Munich, but moved to England when he was about eight years old. After spending four years as a touring actor, he studied briefly at the Slade School of Art until James Whistler encouraged him to become an apprentice in his studio.

He was twenty-three when he met Degas, who would become his artistic mentor and lifelong friend. Degas urged Sickert to study the traditional skills of draughtsmanship. Many of Sickert’s early paintings of the performers and audiences in London’s music halls show the influence of Degas’s methods.

Sickert moved to Dieppe in 1898 and spent the next seven years in France, exhibiting his work in Paris and making regular visits to Degas’s studio. He came back to England in 1905, and settled in Camden Town, where he began to paint a series of paintings of working-class women in shabby rooms. During this period he actively shared his knowledge of French painting with a group of artists who gathered in his studio in north London; they exhibited at the Fitzroy Street Group, later known as the Camden Town Group.

Sickert wrote and lectured about art extensively throughout his life, championing both Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in the face of great critical hostility.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,1864–1901

Born into an aristocratic family, Toulouse-Lautrec was encouraged to develop his artistic talents from a young age. He moved to Paris with his mother, began having informal art lessons, and entered professional teaching studios in 1882.

Lautrec settled in Montmartre in 1884. His contempt for bourgeois behaviour and conventions was sharpened by a genetic disorder which restricted his growth from early adolescence; this was compounded by bone breakages which permanently affected his ability to walk. He spent much time in local cabarets, dance-halls and café-concerts, whose publics and performers became the subject of his drawings, posters and paintings.

Lautrec met Degas through the musician, Desiré Dihau. Degas provided encouragement, and although they didn’t become close friends, the subject-matter and cropped compositions of several of Lautrec’s lithographs reveal his debt to the older artist.

By the 1890s Toulouse-Lautrec had become a leading figure in the Parisian art world. He visited London several times; the largest exhibition of his work during his lifetime was held at London’s Goupil Gallery in 1898. But during the 1890s he had begun to drink heavily, and in 1899 he was confined to a sanatorium after a number of mental breakdowns. He died two years later.