Edgar Degas: The painter of dancers
Although Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is considered one of the founders of the Impressionist movement of the 19th Century, he somehow does not fit completely within the movement and did not care to be part of it. He liked to be considered an independent, when actually he was a classical painter of modern life. As an Impressionist painter, he had one foot in traditional academic art, while the other in the radical and innovative movement that he helped create. He was named ‘the painter of dancers’ because around half what he produced in oil, in drawings and sculpture was related to ballet dancers. Yet, he was really more complex and innovative, setting the pace for the younger generation and later the art movements of the 20th century. He was celebrated for his Parisian scenes, concentrating on human figures, laundresses, prostitutes, singers, milliners, and also ballet dancers. He loved the female body and presented it from strange angles with artificial light.
After spending three years in Rome between 1856 and 1859, where he visited museums and meticulously studied and copied the paintings and sculptures of antiquity, he came back to live in Paris. Meeting his compatriot Edouard Manet led to his joining the group of young artists who later became the Impressionists, and to painting his first contemporary subject ‘Steeplechase’ (the Fallen Jockey). Through their influence, his technique became lighter, the dark colours of classical masters changed to bright tones, his brushstrokes became bold and his compositions simpler, all Impressionist characteristics. Yet, he had a problem with Impressionist artists, making fun of their painting outdoors. He also differed from them in not being ‘spontaneous’ in his work, as he cared for details. He was more interested in painting human beings in their activities than in carrying his palette and doing landscapes in nature. He is quoted saying: “In art, nothing should look like chance, not even movement.”
He was different in showing the mysteries of Parisian city life, which
included the squalor in the streets, the glamorous nightlife and the tired laundresses. By the 1860s he was painting racecourse scenes and women at work within a modern context. He then started in the 1870s painting dancers, in rehearsal, backstage, in the atelier with their teacher, scratching their backs, massaging their feet, ascending stairs or resting after work. These paintings were popular and provided him money he needed to pay back his brother’s large debt. Degas was a pioneer in painting his ballet scenes in these original forms and settings. He studied their physiognomy through their postures and attires.
Like all Impressionists, Degas rejected rigid rules and the elitism of the conservative society, and like them he continued his experimentation, so his work was controversial, admired by some and rejected by others.
Degas was more skilled in the classical technique than the other Impressionists, and people liked his touch of the old masters, making him more popular, as he used it innovatively, combining it with modern disorder and chaos, a contradiction, but uniquely his own.
Degas’ “Foyer de la Danse” was realised in an unconventional manner, where he dispersed the dancers all around instead of giving them order, leaving the centre empty and painting the room at an angle in a very modern and realistic manner.
In “The Ballet Class”, painted between 1871 and 1874, he depicted the dancers at the end of a lesson, surrounded by their ballet master and his rhyming stick.
All his life, Degas struggled with an eye problem and as he aged, his eyesight deteriorated and it became easier for him to go into sculpture. The only sculpture he exposed during his life was the now famous “La petite danseuse de quatorze ans” (‘The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years”), and none was cast in bronze during his life. When it was first shown in 1881, it caused a scandal, as art is supposed to show beauty while people only saw its ugly features. The viewers were shocked with its realism, its almost life size, its human hair, real tutu and ballet shoes. Some saw it as ‘’appallingly ugly” while others thought it an opening to a new form. A critic revealingly observed, “… This statuette evidently produces uneasiness in the spectator…. The fact is that with his first attempt Monsieur Degas has revolutionized the traditions of sculpture as he has long since shaken the conventions of painting.”
With failing eyesight and failing hearing, Degas stopped working as of the beginning of the 20th century. But his reputation grew both in France and internationally, and his work was selling at high prices and was sought by museums and collectors, at the time, rare for a living artist. He was idolized by the young artists of the early 20th century. With his classical influence, he is considered one of the most innovative artists of his age. It is appropriate to end with his own words: “A painting requires a little mystery, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.” With all the repeated themes he painted, he was never boring.
“A painting requires a little mystery, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.”- Degas
The Ballet Class – 1873-76
End of Arabesque – 1877
Two dancers resting – 1910
Dancer scratching her back – 1873-74
Sitting dancer massaging her foot – 1881-83
The little dancer of forteen years – 1921-31