Portraits at the Bourse (1879) by Edgar Degas
Interpretation of Impressionist Portrait Painting

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Portraits at the Bourse
By Degas.
Regarded as one of the
greatest portrait paintings of
the nineteenth century.

Portraits at the Bourse (c.1879)


Analysis of Portraits at the Bourse
Other Impressionist Figure Paintings


Name: Portraits at the Bourse (Stock Exchange) (c.1879)
Artist: Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Type: Portrait art
Movement: Impressionism
Location: Musee d'Orsay. Pastel sketch in the Metropolitan Museum, NY.

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


Portraits at the Bourse (the Bourse is the Paris Stock Exchange), is one of the most controversial Impressionist portraits by the French painter Edgar Degas. However, it is widely acknowledged to contain anti-Semitic elements - notably the facial features of the banker (Ernest May) depicted in the centre of the composition - based on right-wing anti-Semitic cartoons which were in circulation at the time. As an artist, Degas ranks among the greatest masters of figure painting and is regarded by experts as one of the best genre painters of the nineteenth century - a reputation based on his wonderful series of ballerinas, racehorses and working women. Although he explored classicism and academic art before joining the Impressionist group, and disliked the publicity attached to being known as an Impressionist, he showed at most of the Impressionist Exhibitions (1874-1886) and remained a modernist at heart. As a person, however, he was a man of fixed, controversial, and sometimes offensive opinions. A misanthropic bachelor, he was against all social reforms, saw little benefit in the telephone, and is known to have sacked a model when he learned she was Protestant. By the mid-1870s he had become a committed anti-semite, and his attitude hardened further during The Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906). By 1895, he had severed relations with all of his Jewish friends, including other painters, and refused to employ models whom he suspected might be Jewish. For more information on artistic background, please see: Characteristics of Impressionism (1870-1930).

NOTE: Important works by Degas include: The Bellelli Family (1858-67), Race Horses in front of the Stands (1866-8), The Ballet Class (1871-4), Absinthe (1876), Women Ironing (1884), and Woman Combing Her Hair (1887-90).

Analysis of Portraits at the Bourse by Degas

Finished about 1879, Portraits at the Bourse might at first glance be mistaken for a simple scene of Parisian business life. In fact, it is a portrait, a snapshot of the eminent Jewish banker and art collector Ernest May (1845-1925), who was a great admirer of Degas. Indeed, May purchased and took possession of it before it was shown publicly at the fourth mpressionist exhibition in 1879. At any rate, it remained largely unknown until it was acquired by the Louvre in 1923. (Note: Ernest May was a senior French banker, later associated with the Franco-Egyptian Bank and the formation of both the International Bank of Paris and the French Bank for Trade and Industry. He owned the Chateau Couharde and other lands located on the western fringes of Paris.)



The painting depicts a discreet huddle of businessmen on the trading floor of the Paris Bourse (Stock Exchange). May is shown in the centre of the composition, wearing pince-nez and a top hat. He is listening to a Monsieur Bolatre, his colleague, who leans over his shoulder. They appear to be discussing the contents of a document being displayed by a third party on the right. Being the son of a banker, Degas observes his subject from a distance. Although May is the central figure he is reacting to others who are faceless or at least indistinct. This was probably done deliberately so as not to distract viewers from the main subject.

Interestingly, he makes May look much older than his real age (34) but - more controversially - gives him a long, pale face, with exaggerated semitic features, drawn from anti-semitic caricature art and right-wing political literature. During the late 19th century an increasing amount of propaganda was produced by extremist groups and secret societies across Europe spreading rumours of financial conspiracies, in which Jewish financiers were said to be involved. Degas's own views may have been exacerbated by the bankruptcy of his own family's banking business.

The painterly techniques used in Portraits at the Bourse are more closely related to Impressionism than those in Degas's earlier works. The theme, the evident detachment in its execution, the rapid and sketchy brushwork and the photographic snapshot effect, all combine to make it an Impressionistic masterpiece.

NOTE: For the full story behind French Impressionism and the group of young Paris artists who started it, see our 10-part series, beginning: Impressionism: Origins, Influences.

Other Impressionist Figure Paintings

Family Reunion (1867) by Frederic Bazille.
Musee d'Orsay.

Portrait of Emile Zola (1868) by Manet.
Musee d'Orsay.

Portrait of Berthe Morisot With Violets (1872) by Manet.
Musee d'Orsay.

Luncheon Of the Boating Party (1880-1) by Renoir.
Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882) by Manet.
Courtauld Gallery, London.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-6) by Seurat.
Art Institute of Chicago.

Young Woman Sewing (1886) by Mary Cassatt.
Musee d'Orsay.


• For analysis of other Impressionist portrait paintings, see: Homepage.

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