Degas was born in Paris, France, the eldest of five children of Célestine Musson De Gas and Augustin De Gas, a banker. The family was moderately wealthy. At age eleven, Degas (as a young man he abandoned the more pretentious spelling of the family name) began his schooling with enrollment in the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, graduating in 1853 with a baccalauréat in literature.
Degas began to paint seriously early in his life. By eighteen he had turned a room in his home into an artist's studio, and had begun making copies in the Louvre, but his father expected him to go to law school. Degas duly registered at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris in November 1853, but made little effort at his studies there. In 1855, Degas met Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, whom he revered, and was advised by him to "draw lines, young man, many lines." In April of that same year, Degas received admission to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied drawing with Louis Lamothe, under whose guidance he flourished, following the style of Ingres. In July 1856, Degas traveled to Italy, where he would remain for the next three years. There he drew and painted copies after Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and other artists of the Renaissance, often selecting from an altarpiece an individual head which he treated as a portrait. It was during this period that Degas studied and became accomplished in the techniques of high, academic, and classical art.
After returning from Italy in 1859, Degas continued his education by copying paintings at the Louvre; he was to remain an enthusiastic copyist well into middle age. In the early 1860s, while visiting his childhood friend Paul Valpinçon in Normandy, he made his first studies of horses. He exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1865, when the jury accepted his painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages, which attracted little attention. Although he exhibited annually in the Salon during the next five years, he submitted no more history paintings, and his Steeplechase—The Fallen Jockey (Salon of 1866) signaled his growing commitment to contemporary subject matter. The change in his art was influenced primarily by the example of Édouard Manet, whom Degas had met in 1864 while copying in the Louvre.
At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Degas enlisted in the National Guard, where his defense of Paris left him little time for painting. During rifle training his eyesight was found to be defective, and for the rest of his life his eye problems were a constant worry to him.
Degas is often identified as an Impressionist, an understandable but insufficient description. Impressionism originated in the 1860s and 1870s and grew, in part, from the realism of such painters as Courbet and Corot. The Impressionists painted the realities of the world around them using bright, "dazzling" colors, concentrating primarily on the effects of light, and hoping to infuse their scenes with immediacy.
Technically, Degas differs from the Impressionists in that, as art historian Frederick Hartt says, he "never adopted the Impressionist color fleck", and he continually belittled their practice of painting en plein air. "He was often as anti-impressionist as the critics who reviewed the shows", according to art historian Carol Armstrong; as Degas himself explained, "no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing." Nonetheless, he is described more accurately as an Impressionist than as a member of any other movement. His scenes of Parisian life, his off-center compositions, his experiments with color and form, and his friendship with several key Impressionist artists, most notably Mary Cassatt and Edouard Manet, all relate him intimately to the Impressionist movement.
Degas has his own distinct style, one reflecting his deep respect for the old masters and his great admiration for Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix. He was also a collector of Japanese prints, whose compositional principles influenced his work, as did the vigorous realism of popular illustrators such as Daumier and Gavarni. Although famous for horses and dancers, Degas began with conventional historical paintings such as The Young Spartans, although his treatment of such subjects became progressively less idealized. During his early career, Degas also painted portraits of individuals and groups; an example of the latter is The Bellelli Family of (c.1858–60), a brilliantly composed and psychologically poignant portrayal of his aunt, her husband, and their children. In this painting, as in The Young Spartans and many later works, Degas was drawn to the tensions present between men and women. In his early paintings, Degas already evidenced the mature style that he would later develop more fully by cropping subjects awkwardly and by choosing unusual viewpoints.
Degas' mature style is distinguished by conspicuously unfinished passages, even in otherwise tightly rendered paintings. He frequently blamed his eye troubles for his inability to finish, an explanation that met with some skepticism from colleagues and collectors who reasoned, as Stuckey explains, that "his pictures could hardly have been executed by anyone with inadequate vision." The artist provided another clue when he described his predilection "to begin a hundred things and not finish one of them," and was in any case notoriously reluctant to consider a painting complete.
His interest in portraiture led him to study carefully the ways in which a person's social stature or form of employment may be revealed by their physiognomy, posture, dress, and other attributes. In his 1879 Portraits, At the Stock Exchange, he portrayed a group of Jewish businessmen with a hint of antisemitism; while in his paintings of dancers and laundresses, he reveals their occupations not only by their dress and activities but also by their body type. His ballerinas exhibit an athletic physicality, while his laundresses are heavy and solid.
By the later 1870s Degas had mastered not only the traditional medium of oil on canvas, but pastel as well. The dry medium, which he applied in complex layers and textures, enabled him more easily to reconcile his facility for line with a growing interest in expressive color.
In the mid-1870s he also returned to the medium of etching, which he had neglected for ten years, and began experimenting with less traditional printmaking media—lithographs and experimental monotypes. He was especially fascinated by the effects produced by monotype, and frequently reworked the printed images with pastel.
His paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculpture—most of the latter were not intended for exhibition, and were discovered only after his death—are on prominent display in many museums.
Although Degas had no formal pupils, he greatly influenced several important painters, most notably Jean-Louis Forain, Mary Cassatt, and Walter Sickert; his greatest admirer may have been Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. (From wikipedia)