In this self-portrait a young Edgar Degas turns his head to look out at the spectator. He wears casual clothes, including an open collar and broad brimmed hat. The informal, extreme close-up view of Degas's face and his impassive, almost sullen expression echo the unpretentiousness of his clothing. The small-scale, informal presentation and lightness of touch emphasize the intimacy of this image and the still-tentative character of the young artist.
Around 1857, when he was twenty-three or twenty-four, Degas traveled to Italy, where he spent much of his time making copies after Renaissance masters. The period was one of self-education and he drew prolifically, writing in one of his notebooks, "I must thoroughly realize I know nothing at all; it is the only way to get ahead." Finding in himself a willing sitter, he made fifteen or more self-portraits in various media during his time in Italy.