Friday, April 21, 2017

Degas: A Glimpse into 17th Century Ballet Culture

Edgar Degas was a 17th century French artist, prominently known for his paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints, which features mostly dancers. His dance paintings which depict a contemporary subject matter, capture momentary glimpses, and utilize loose and gestural brushstrokes, are characteristic of the impressionist movement. Although regarded as one of the founders of impressionism, he disliked being associated with the movement, preferring to be called a realist instead. His realism is demonstrated in the perspective he chooses in portraying his ballerinas.
Degas considered himself a realist because he aimed to capture exactly what he saw, including the mundane and simplest, least beautiful gestures- ballerinas stretching, rubbing sore muscles, waiting for instructions, scratching their backs, and even yawning. In the 1870s-1880s, ballerinas were viewed as movie stars and valued mostly for their looks, which led artist to portray them as public aesthetic goods, only to be enjoyed for their beauty and sensuality. Degas chose to deviate from this norm by intentionally painting the ballerinas just as he saw them, usually in the midst of awkward unflattering moments.
In another sense, he was a realist because he wanted to expose the reality of Parisian ballet culture. Behind the scenes, the dancers spent long hours and underwent considerable physical toil for a fleeting moment of perfection and elegance; something he resonated with deeply in his own artistic endeavor. Furthermore, ballerinas were also often poor and from the lower class, sometimes even involved in prostitution in order to make a living. Their lives were far from the glamorous story people expected. Through his art, Degas provides the viewer the opportunity to take a glimpse into the world of ballerinas and empathize with the harsh reality behind the grand spectacle of the ballet.

Edgar Degas, Dancers Practicing at the Barre, 1877, Mixed media on canvas, 29.100.34

This painting depicts the physicality of ballerinas, having to spend long hours practicing in the dance studio.The dancer on the left is portrayed in an abnormal pose, with her leg and foot in contrast to the orientation of her torso and upper body. The other dancer has her leg stretched on the barre, mimicking the shape of a watering can that is featured on the left of the studio. Light and shadow are used to define her back muscles and the shape of her calf, emphasizing the toned physique of the ballerinas. Additionally, Degas utilizes the form of the ballerina to mimic the shape of the metal watering can, with her tutu acting as the tank, her arms as the handle, and her leg as the spout, which is utilized further to emphasize the sturdy physique of the dancer.

Edgar Degas, Two Dancers Sitting On a Bench, c. 1879, Pastel and gouache on paper, Shelburne Museum.  

Two ballerinas are seated on the bench, taking a break from a dance practice. The dancer on the left appears to be hunched over, massaging her calves with her head hung low. Similarly, the dancer on the right places her left leg on the bench to massage her ankle, while her right arm rests on her other leg. Although they look as if they were resting, notice that their feet are positioned either in second position or a modified first position, which are classical feet placements in ballet that are quite uncomfortable to maintain. Degas chose to render the dancers in a way that emphasizes their exhaustion and weariness without sacrificing their commitment to their art form.

Edgar Degas, Waiting (L’Attente) , Pastel on paper, c. 1882, J. Paul Getty Museum

Similar to Two Dancers Sitting on a Bench, this pastel features a dancer and her chaperone sitting on a bench with their heads hung low, facing the ground. The dancer is seen hunched over supporting herself on her right knee while rubbing her ankle. Her demeanor conveys a sense of tiredness, but also eagerness in awaiting for her performance. Her white tutu and bright blue ribbons are juxtaposed with the all-black attire of her chaperone, who has a black umbrella pointing to the stage. Ballerinas were often accompanied by their chaperones, who were likely ex-dancers themselves. Their juxtaposition is meant to call attention to the brevity of a dancer’s career and the gloomy future that awaits her.

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1874, Oil on canvas, 1987.47.1

Dance examinations are a significant part of a dancer’s life and something the audience never sees. This painting tells the narrative of ballerinas and their chaperones waiting for a young dancer who is executing her attitude under the scrutiny of the famous ballet master, Jules Perrot. In a sea of ballerinas, only the central figure is actually dancing. The others are depicted in mundane and sometimes quite unflattering positions. A girl is seen scratching her neck, another is seen biting her nails, while the dancer closest to the viewer is fixing her tutu. Others are impatiently waiting for the ballerina to finish her dance.The perspective Degas chooses to portray looks like a snapshot of the laborious and somewhat disorderly activity that is integral to a ballerina’s career.

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage, Oil colors freely mixed with turpentine, with traces of watercolor and pastel over pen-and-ink drawing on cream-colored wove paper, laid down on bristol board and mounted on canvas, 29.160.26

Typically, dance paintings feature a perfected performance, but Degas chooses to capture a moment during rehearsal instead. Dancers are divided into two groups: those on stage and those waiting in the wing. Dancers on the stage are seen practicing their choreography, lined up neatly in two formations, led by the stage director who is gesturing instructions with his hands. These graceful dancers are juxtaposed with the dancers waiting in the wing who are unengaged and far from elegant, similar to those in The Dance Class. One is scratching her back, one is yawning, and one is fixing her shoe. In the far right are two men watching the girls. Some have interpreted these figures as abonnes, regular watchers who paid extra to “mingle” and have some privacy with the dancers. The men are subjecting the girls under their male gaze, used by Degas to portray the exploitation of these dancers.

Edgar Degas, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, model executed ca. 1880, cast 1922, Bronze, partially tinted, with cotton skirt, and satin hair ribbon; wooden base, 29.100.370

Degas’s most famous sculpture, the wax figure was originally exhibited with real hair, clothing, shoes  and an actual ribbon around her hair, in efforts of making her as life-like as possible. The bony dancer is seen standing in fourth position with her head held high and chin lifted up in a dignified pose. Initially, people were outraged because she was so unattractive, even comparing her to a rat. Degas chose to highlight this link, exaggerating a low forehead and a protruding jaw, as a visual pun for “petite rat”, a name they used to refer to young dancers in the Paris Opera ballet. The 14-year-old model was Marie van Goethem, a poverty-stricken ballerina, who was the daughter of a laundress and part-time prostitute. Through this sculpture, Degas gave a glimpse into the harsh realities of the young dancers of the time.

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