Through the ages, dance has always held a special place in society. Ballet began in the 15th century during the Italian Renaissance and was loved especially by those in Italy’s royal court. Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France, brought ballet to France. She gave ballet a place in the French royal court, though at that point it was simply a spectacle to be enjoyed by royalty. It did not become a profession that required formal training for another century. King Henry XIV helped it to grow in France, and even danced in several ballets himself. By 1661, a dance academy had been opened in Paris, and that year also signified the beginning of ballet being performed on the stage and not only in the royal court. The early 19th Century introduced Romantic Ballet to the dance world with ballets like Giselle and La Sylphide. Dancing en pointe became normal for ballet dancers, as well as wearing tutus that were 3/4 in length.
While ballet gained a good amount of popularity at the beginning of the 19th Century, it had lost the majority of its dignified mystique. Instead, it was seen by society as the hard work of the daughters of the lower-class who were required by their mothers to help earn money. This sometimes included a young girl using her ballet skills to seduce a wealthy gentleman who could afford to sponsor her classes and help her maintain a living.
In his artwork, Edgar Degas alludes to Ballet’s strong history as a true form of dance, while also showing what it had become through his natural style of depicting dancers in their element. This style includes things like creating pieces that appear to be snapshots in time and a unique use of space.
Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage, 1874, 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, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This piece shows the viewer the brutal honesty of a dance rehearsal. When someone looks at this piece, they can feel the tension of the instructor as he tries to make the dancers in the center perform the routines correctly and the intense boredom of the other subjects of the drawing. It is clear that even thought he finished product will appear otherworldly, there is still an air of the everyday in The Rehearsal. This is found in the way the dancers to the left are all doing things like fixing shoes, yawning, or scratching their backs. The subjects and the materials give an interestingly sharp contrast between the grace and beauty of ballet and the fierce normalcy of the dancers; they are normal people too.
Edgar Degas, Dancer with a Fan, 1880, pastel on grey-green laid paper, 29.100.188, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In this pastel drawing, a girl pauses from a dance as she holds a fan. The sweeping motions of the pastel emphasize the movements of the body, which symbolize the work involved in ballet. The amount of detail given to the dancer’s head, torso, legs, and feet and the lack of it in the tutu support this as well. The dancer’s position seems to dramatize her present state — one of exhaustion from her labor; her shoulders are slumped over with her left arm up behind her head, as if she is rubbing a cramp out of her neck. The expression on her face emulates this as well as she tilts her face upward and closes her eyes. Though Dancer with a Fan alludes to the status ballet had in 19th Century France, it also shows the noble aspect of ballet, which is even seen today.
Edgar Degas, Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot (Fourth State), modeled before ca. 1895-1900, cast 1920, bronze, 29.100.377, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This sculpture depicts a dancer in minimal dance attire as she lifts her right foot to glance at her sole. Degas’ simplistic style emphasizes the dancer’s movement and posture and not the dancer herself. Her position references the status of ballet in society in late 19th century France, while giving a perfect depiction of the graceful movements involved in the dance. Degas uses this to reference the former mindset that was tied to ballet, but has been almost lost. Her precarious position alludes to how easy it would be for this mentality to be lost completely.
Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, 1879, pastel and black chalk on three pieces of wove paper, joined together, 1971.185, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The subjects of The Dance Lesson mirror Degas’ other works of dancers in the middle of class and could be said to show the beginning stages of a dancer’s career. The girl in this drawing seems very young and her position seems juvenile, leading the viewer to believe that she is a somewhat new student. Her facial expression adds to her naivety; she is clearly uninterested in her present location and would rather be doing something else. Degas’ odd use of depth and dimension in this drawing make the viewer feel almost uncomfortable when they look at it, giving them a sense of how the original viewers felt when Degas first created it.
Edgar Degas, cast by A. A. Hérbrard (Paris), The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, model executed ca. 1880, cast 1922, Bronze, partially tinted, with cotton skirt and satin hair ribbon; wood base, 29.100.370, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Degas’ Dancer was not received well at all when it was first exhibited because she was viewed as too low in society to be seen at a prestigious art show. People also disapproved of it because it was originally crafted from beeswax that was tinted a nude color to represent skin, human hair, and a real dress, tutu, and slippers. It was unnerving to people because it looked like a real girl. The Little Dancer showed all too well the reality of ballet; it was performed by those of the lower class even though the ballets portrayed romantic settings in far off lands.
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1874, oil on canvas, 1987.47.1, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Degas’ The Dance Class is one of his most iconic paintings and one that viewers see very often in all kinds of settings. Because of this, the meaning behind it can sometimes be lost. This painting depicts real life. These girls are clearly regular people; they are adjusting tutus, not paying enough attention to the instructor, or paying too close attention in the hopes of gaining a higher status in his eyes. Degas’ use of monochromatic colors like green, red, and blue give a sharp contrast to the harsh blacks worn by the women in the back who retain the job of ensuring the girls remain in their class to gain the talents that would enable them to earn a living. Though paintings like this did not receive praise when they were first created, we can still enjoy them with the knowledge of the hardworking dancers they represent.