The eldest of three siblings, Degas was born in Paris to a comfortably-off family. He studied at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and continued his education by attending classes at the Faculty of Law, just as his father expected. However, Degas’s artistic vocation was stronger than his family’s wishes, and he soon began to show the skills that led him to abandon a career in jurisprudence.
In 1853 he joined the studio of painter Louis Lamothe, a disciple of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and two years later he enrolled in the School of Fine Arts, which he left shortly afterwards to move to Italy, where he trained independently. In 1859 he returned to the French capital, initiating a period in which devoted himself to painting historical events and portraits, academic subjects that he abandoned over time to focus on more contemporary motifs. This led him to orientate his work towards ballet scenes, cafés, bathers, and pressers and laundresses.
Around 1868, he used to frequent the gatherings at the Café Guerbois, chaired by Édouard Manet, who he had met years earlier, and here he also met and associated with Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley, among others. In 1870, as a result of his involvement in the Franco-Prussian War, he suffered an eye injury which would progressively deteriorate.
After a brief stay in London and a trip to New Orleans, he returned to Paris where, in 1874, he took part in the first of eight independent exhibitions held outside the official Salons, organized by the Impressionist group. Little by little the tensions between the participants in the exhibitions increased, and Degas gradually withdrew from them, becoming a lonely and bitter character afflicted by numerous illnesses. The death of his father in 1874 revealed a serious economic crisis in his family which forced Degas to sell h is paintings to survive. Around 1880 his eyesight problems became much worse, which led him to work with two new media that would not require such visual precision as painting: sculpture and pastels.
The turn of the century revealed an ultra-conservative and traditionalist Degas, with little artistic production, which then ceased definitively around 1912. In this last phase of his life, he devoted himself to collecting works by different creators, even offering his own works in exchange, building up an interesting collection.
He spent the final months of his life prostrated in bed, abandoned by his housekeeper, and died on 27 September 1917.