Monday, December 4, 2017

Degas: An Exploration of the World Backstage

It has been suggested that Edgar Degas’ depictions of ballerinas were some of the most accurate representations of 19th century ballet. Degas’ interest in dance began around 1870, and he continued to paint dance scenes until the end of his artistic career. Degas’ works were notable because he captured the day-to-day life of the dancers, a perspective that few had encountered before. As an amateur without access to the actual ballet, he frequented the practice rooms where dancers rehearsed and warmed up. After gaining notoriety and some level of success, the Paris Opera Ballet invited him to become a patron, and allowed him exclusive access to the backstage areas, as well as the performances. However, he continued to capture the dancers in casual snapshots, as they were preparing to perform a complex routine or simply bending down to tie their ribbons as they rehearsed.
      He painted the ballerinas in these unconventional forms for years, and explored many different mediums as he worked. He painted many scenes with oil, but also experimented with watercolors, ink, and pastels. He also switched up his painting surface, using paper, canvases, fans, and wood. Degas used his hands directly as well, sculpting numerous tiny figures in dance positions. Degas’ exploration of methods reflects his own obsession with “revision, modification, and repetition” needed to perfect a work, and parallels his attention to the behind-the-scenes, practice-makes-perfect world of ballet.

Edgar Degas, The Dancing Class, c. 1870, oil on wood, 29.100.184

The Dancing Class is one of Degas’ very first explorations of ballet. His depiction of the ballerina in front of the mirror in the foreground, coupled with his use of negative space, gives the viewer a sense of energy and motion. The space left is the place in which the dancer will momentarily engage in a flurry of action. The dancers around her exemplify Degas’ interest in the mundane. Many stand around watching, gaze at themselves in the mirror, or simply take a moment to rest. In this tiny painting, Degas pays extraordinary detail to the minuscule, including the folds of their uniform white tutus and dainty jewelry.

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage, c. 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

Although The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage moves from the practice room to the performance arena, Degas still captures the essence of the rehearsal. The dance master, obviously flustered, directs the girls on the stage, as others stand close by. The ballerinas are captured in a seemingly fleeting moment, similar to a photograph. One stretches upwards to yawn while another bends down to adjust the ribbons of her pointe shoe. The centerstage dancers once again seem to fill the negative space with their motions. Degas’ use of turpentine in his paint gives the painting a dream-like quality, making this work more similar to the Impressionist paintings popular at the time. 

Edgar Degas, Fan Mount: The Ballet, 1879, watercolor, India ink, silver, and gold on silk, 29.100.554

In The Ballet, Degas paints around eight dancers on a fan in monochrome on a simple black background. The ballerinas are brought to life via an outline of gold-colored paint, made out of brass powder. Degas’ figure featured at center right was also included famously in The Dance Class. Of the 25 fans Degas painted, nineteen were completed between 1878-1880, and only one out of all depicted something other than a ballet scene. Even on a medium as regal as a fan, Degas cannot shake his interest in the rehearsal scene, and continues to develop his love for the ballet on interesting surfaces.

Edgar Degas, Dancers in the Rehearsal Room with a Double Bass, 1882-1885, oil on canvas, 29.100.127

In Dancers in the Rehearsal Room with a Double Bass, Degas features a foreshortened practice room, highlighting and juxtaposing the dancer and massive instrument on the floor. Here, the ballerinas rehearsing are far in the background. The focus is distinctly on the dancer in another snapshot pose, stretching to the floor to tie her shoe. This is one of Degas’ first explorations of the frieze format, where he elongates the scene horizontally. Later analysis of this piece shows that Degas painted the entire work in one sitting, with only small details added in later. 

Edgar Degas, First Arabesque Penchée, modeled probably before 1890 and cast 1920, bronze, 29.100.398

Degas’ First Arabesque Penchée was one of many sculptures found in his studio after his death. Although he did not particularly love casting his sculptures in permanent materials like bronze, the casts were made to help preserve his work for generations to come. Even in a sculpture, Degas captures the motion of a dance routine in rehearsal, also echoed by her nude form. This particular ballerina comes close to grazing the floor, seemingly defying gravity, and appearing weightless in the moment. Emphasis is placed on her position, and not specific features.

Edgar Degas, The Dancers, c. 1900, pastel and charcoal on paper, 64.165.1

The Dancers, done later in Degas’ career with pastels, is obviously more simplistic than the other works, especially those done with oil paint. However, his row of dancers, almost 30 years after The Dancing Lesson, still depict the day-to-day rehearsal of the ballerinas. The dancer immediately in the foreground stops to adjust her slipper, while the remainder of the women practice different positions behind her. Although there is less negative space here, the dancers occupy it all the same with their ripple of impending motion.

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