Saturday, December 6, 2014

Dancers and Degas

Dancers and Degas

Today, many little girls dream of being a ballerina but it has not always been a profession to be proud of. In the 18th and 19th centuries being a dancer was equivalent to being a prostitute, especially in France. The Paris Opera, the main theatre for dance, was also commonly called the brothel of France. Though dancers were not thought of as honorable women, they were still greatly represented in art. Edgar Degas, the 19th century French artist, was enthralled with dancers and performances. However, many of his artworks focused on the preparation of the dancers, rather than the actual performances. Degas is known as one of the founders of impressionism, but he rejected that label and considered himself a realist. He saw his paintings, sculptures, and drawings of dancers as real life portrayals of their experiences.

Degas illustrates dancers in groups and as individuals, but never leaves the representation of a dancers life out. He was fascinated by the way in which dancers were able to move their bodies and by the implications of the movements. In his representations of dancers, he showed the skill that each individual had as well as the strain that dancing caused on their bodies. This exhibition focuses on the way that Degas uses vantage points and lines to capture the different movements of the dancers he was depicting.

Edgar Degas, The Dancing Class, 1870, Oil on wood, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 29.100.184

This was Degas’s first illustration of a dance class. Unlike his later works, he did not use his typical, drastic diagonal line to create a sense of distance within the painting. Nevertheless, the large open space in the bottom right area represented a place where movement was soon to happen. There is a sense that the dancer in the middle of the room was about to begin her dance. Degas uses the stance of the musician and his instrument to communicate with the dancer in the center.

Edgar Degas, The Ballet from “Robert le Diable,” 1871 Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 29.100.552

The dancers in this painting are not in focus like many of his other artworks. The audience and the orchestra are keeping the viewer from getting a closer look of the dancers. The audience was made up of all men, which supports the idea that dancers of this day were similar to prostitutes. The colors and brush strokes that Degas uses in depicting the dancers helps to express the fluidity of a dancer’s body. Even with the clarity of the audiences’ faces and vagueness of the dancers, the bright whites and blues of the performers catch the viewer’s eye.

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1874, 

Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987.47.1

Degas uses vibrant colors and vivid lines to guide the viewer’s eye around the canvas. This painting is similar to some of his other pieces because of the blank space in the bottom right corner and then the shadow of darkness in the opposite corner. This painting is a great depiction of what a class preparing for a performance would look like. There is a sense of chaos, yet the instructor, who is to the right of the painting, is calm and clearly in control. Degas uses the ceiling, floor, and wall to create a sense of depth to the classroom. 

Edgar Degas, Dancers Practicing at the Barre, 1877, 
mixed media on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 29.100.34

In this painting, Degas uses the mundane everyday items to create a sense of conversation between the subjects. The watering can in the left corner was used to keep the floor wet, which decreased the amount of dust in the air. The dancers’ positions at the bar mimic the shape of the watering can. Degas uses the dance bar and the baseboard to take the viewers eye from left to right. The strain of what the dancers are doing can be seen and felt in the way that the girl with the yellow bow is reaching and hunched over. The diagonal line of the painting creates a sensation of the dancer reaching upwards. 

Edgar Degas, Dancers in the Rehearsal Room with a Double Bass, 1882-85, 

Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 29.100.127

Degas was known for using the frieze format in different artworks of ballet rehearsals. In this piece the elongated wall receding back into space creates a linear perspective of a large dance classroom. He uses the simple act of a dancer tying the ribbon on her shoe to display the flexibility that dancers embody. Degas uses the darkness of the front left area to emphasize that the light in the painting is coming from the French windows in the back part of the room.

Edgar Degas, Dancers, Pink and Green, 1890,
Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 29.100. 42

The rich colors of the dancers’ costumes, instead of the typical white, give the impression that the girls are about to go on stage to perform. Degas mixes white to the already brilliant colors in order to create a sense of texture for the dancers’ tutus. As they are waiting, some of the girls are adjusting their costumes and fixing their hair. This supports the idea that they are working towards being desirable for the audience. The vantage point of the viewer in this painting is a behind the scenes look at what dancers do the moments right before going on to perform.

-Camellia Cornelius

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