Edgar Degas (Hilaire Germain Edgar DE GAS) (1834-1917) is one of the 19th century’s greatest painters, draftsmen and printmakers and an innovative sculptor and photographer. Degas created readily-saleable small-scale works in pastel, gouache and distemper, media that allowed him to work more rapidly. His subject matter included dancers, theater scenes, café-concerts, brothel scenes and nudes, along with portraits of friends.
From an aristocratic family, he belied his pedigree when he was backstage at the Paris Opera, sketching the young, ballet dancers in the chorus line. Degas is also known for scenes of Paris racetracks and horses, restaurant interiors, cabarets and cafés, brothels and prostitutes and, above all, his portraiture, with its searing delineation of social class.
Ludovic Halévy (1834 – 1908) was a French librettist and novelist who, in collaboration with Henri Meilhac, wrote the librettos for most of the operettas of Jacques Offenbach and who also wrote satiric comedies about contemporary Parisian life.
These works’ scripts are characterized by buffoonery, farce, and the light and ironic mockery of society. Halévy and Meilhac also wrote the libretto for Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen (1875). Among the best of their entertaining drawing-room comedies are Fanny (1868) and Froufrou (1869).
Halévy himself was also a skilled writer of novels and short stories. The best of his fiction includes La Famille Cardinal (1883), a study of lower-class Parisian life during the early years of the Third Republic. The pompous, pedantic, venomous Monsieur Cardinal will long survive as the true image of sententious and self-glorifying immorality.
Degas made the monotypes to illustrate his close friend, writer and librettist of Carmen, Ludovic Halévy's book, La Famille Cardinal, a satire of social-climbing ballet dancers, controlling stage mothers and the backstage sex-trade. Hoping to illustrate a new edition of the book, originally published in 1872, Degas created a collection of monotypes inspired by the story in the early 1880s. Since Halévy narrated the book in the first person, Degas included him in nine of the illustrations. Halévy, however, failed to recognize the greatness of these monotypes.
Degas first used the monotype medium in 1874/5 having been introduced to it by Vicomte Ludovic Napoléon Lepic, an engraver and member of the Société des Aquafortistes. His initial pencil studies for the Cardinal series were done two years later, but it was not until the 1880s that he began systematic work on the monotype illustrations.
By the 1880s Degas’s style was tending towards an increasing assimilation of impressionist techniques. However, the blurred contour and the painterly application of ink are effects inherent to the monotype medium, as much as they may be characteristics of impressionist painting. Nevertheless, the use of this medium does locate a change of emphasis for Degas especially since it parallels his growing tendency for pastel. With the use of pastel Degas grew increasingly to understand colour; with monotypes, which he himself described as ‘dessins faits avec l’encre grasse et imprimés’, he learned to compose in tonal areas – shapes rather than lines.
Although his eyesight and general health deteriorated during the 20th century, he continued to work until 1912.
It would be surprising to see how realistic art, or even naturalistic, to which Degas while recourse, has departed from the tradition of sugary elegance of the Second Empire, by which were made miniatures of Edmond Morin for the first edition of Monsieur et Madame Cardinal, and by which followed the genre of Grevin presented in illustrations of Henry Maigrot for publication Petites Cardinal; by comparing the illustrations of these two books with those that did Degas, it will be understood as a great artist ahead of his time!
Degas' art influenced a generations of artists.