Edgar De­gas: The painter of dancers

ArabAd - - CONTENTS - By Mona Iskdan­dar

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

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