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Around the galleries

A pas-de-deux with Degas

— October 2011

Associated media

Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, c.1879

Rosalind Ormiston joins the dance for 'Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement'

Step lightly to the Royal Academy in London to be transported to 19th-century Paris for a ‘pas-de-deux’ with one of France’s most famous painters, Edgar Degas (1834–1917). In a stunning exhibition, the first of its kind to take place in Great Britain, ‘Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement’ sets the artist’s ‘ballet art’ in the context of its period.

 ‘Degas and the Ballet’ primarily focuses on Degas’ exploration of movement in art, sculpture and photography. Studying the artist’s methodical observation of ballet dancers in rehearsal rooms, on stage, and in his studio, it was the curators’ intention to compare his art to the pioneering photographic experiments of the 19th century, most notable in the work of French physiologist and chronophotographer Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904), and the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904).

Degas chose to portray ballet because it gave him, he said, ‘a pretext for depicting movement’.  Over a period of 20 years, beginning in the 1870s, Degas saw ballet art as the challenge of capturing the human figure in motion. He conceded that it led people to label him: ‘They call me the painter of dancers. They don’t understand that for me the dancer was a pretext for painting pretty fabrics and rendering movement.’ In this exhibition the theme of movement is the thread that runs through an outstanding selection of paintings, drawings, sculpture, photography and film.

Edgar Degas’ great pleasure was to attend the Paris Opéra. He visited it regularly. During the opera intervals ballet performances took place. Degas was allowed backstage, as were patrons of the ballet, to watch the young dancers as they stretched their limbs, practised a few steps, or applied resin to the soles of their ballet shoes in preparation for performance. Degas captured the modernity of Paris in the aching sweaty bodies dressed in pretty costumes. Whilst his fellow Impressionists chose to paint the landscape en plein air, Degas concentrated much of his time depicting interiors, from the brash glitter of nights at the Opéra, on and off stage, to daytime dance rehearsals. He was openly attacked by critics for making such a choice. Sticking to his subject, Degas’ rapid sketches, his drawings and paintings take the spectator behind the scenes of ‘modern life’ in late-19th-century Paris.

As an introduction to the artist’s ‘ballet art’, the exhibition launches with a colourful group of early paintings that includes The Rehearsal, 1874 (Burrell Collection), The Ballet Rehearsal, c.1876–8 (Private Collection), and The Dance Lesson, c.1879 (National Gallery of Art, Washington). Each takes the spectator inside rehearsal rooms to watch young dancers – nicknamed ‘little rats’ owing to their less appealing off-stage life – stretch and bend to limber up; dance under the gaze of the ballet tutor; or sweat through strenuous exercise.

Degas captured each moment and recreated it in his studio, painting from sketches or from memory. His knowledge of ballet is evident in the drawings of dancers executing balletic movements. Wonderful examples, such as Dancer (preparation en dedans), c.1880–5 (Trinity House) and Preparation for an inside Pirouette, c.1880–5 (National Museum, Belgrade), reveal the depth of his comprehension. From rehearsal room to front-of-house Degas engages the spectator as if present at the performance. One need only study Two Dancers on the Stage, 1874 (Samuel Courtauld Trust), to see how the artist captures a split-second movement.  Wearing lightweight ballet shoes the ballerina en-pointe in the foreground momentarily arches her left foot to hold her weight in a position that could not be held for more than a few seconds. In an accompanying display of ballerinas’ carte-de-visite photographs a side-by-side evaluation of the realism of these paintings and the photographic record is possible. It is a fascinating comparison.

The curators of ‘Degas and the Ballet’ have focused on the representation of movement, an integral part of the visual culture of Paris in the third quarter of the 19th century, and particularly on the development of photography and early film. A sub-theme running through the exhibition is an exploration of various attempts to capture movement on camera. The central room of the exhibition – a spectacular creation of a 19th-century museum space – centres on two pioneers of the moving image, Marey and Muybridge, to reveal the extent that art and science were intrinsically linked in this era. Contained in glass cases are remarkable bronze sculptures of birds in time-sequence flight, created by Marey to imitate the flight of birds captured in his photography. Plaster sculptures by Paul Richer, professor of Anatomy at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, most notably The Race, Group of Three Runners, are juxtaposed with Degas sculptures of dancers.

Although Degas at first shunned the camera he eventually overcame his initial reservations to embrace its technology. A duplicate of his first camera is on display. His photographic work Dancer Adjusting her Shoulder Strap, c.1895-6 (Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris), relates closely to the movements of his dancers in Dancers, c.1899 (Princeton University Art Museum). One theory suggested is the possibility that Degas tried to capture the moving ‘freeze-frame’ effect of photography, visible in the experimental Muybridge series Animal Locomotion, Woman Dancing (Fancy), 1887 (Royal Academy of Arts, London). In La Danse Grecque (Dancing Ballerinas), 1885–90 (Earle I. Mack Collection) has Degas painted one dancer in a time-sequence, or three dancers as the corps-de-ballet? It is left for the exhibition visitor to decide.

A highlight of the exhibition is Degas’ most avant-garde work, his sculpture The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, 1880–1, which he created in wax (now preserved in the National Gallery of Art, Washington) A bronze cast of it is on loan from the Tate. A display board accompanying the sculpture explores the series of multiple-angle drawings of the young dancer, Marie van Goethem, which, when placed together reveal a 360-degree view of her. To make the resulting sculpture as life-like as possible, Degas dressed it in a real bodice and tutu and satin shoes and added a long human-hair wig tied back with a ribbon. It created a sensational response when exhibited at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in Paris, in 1881. In the current exhibition the curators compare this work to earlier experimental projects in sculpture from the period, significantly François Willème’s ‘Photosculpture’, a novel method used to capture an exact likeness in plaster. 

The final years of Degas’ ‘ballet art’ reveal less emphasis on movement, concentrating on the vibrancy of a jewel-coloured array of pastels, and paintings that liken his palette to the intensity of stained glass; the colours captivate and hold the attention. His later interest in Russian dance is also explored in a series of pastels. In all, each room of this brilliant exhibition tell us much about Degas in the context of Paris in the late 19th century. From its theatrical shadow-play beginning through to ‘the Coda’ conclusion (a poignant 1914/15 street-view film clip of Degas), ‘Degas and the Ballet’ performs an arresting pas-de-deux with the spectator, from entrée and adagio to the final coda, led throughout by the master of the dance and much more than a ‘painter of dancers’, Edgar Degas.


Rosalind Ormiston
Independent art historian

Media credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington

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