Degas through a new lens

When paintings by famous artists become so pervasive they appear on coffee mugs, umbrellas, greeting cards and key rings, their power ebbs away.

Van Gogh’s The Sunflowers. Monet’s lilies. Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Enough said.

It’s the same with Degas. When I was a child, one of my treasured possessions was a copy of Degas’s painting, L’etoile (La danseuse sur la scene).

The dancer downstage was not the only attraction. I wanted to understand the mysterious people in the wings – who was that man in the black suit standing alongside the other dancers waiting to make their entrance?

I didn’t know then that he was probably a predatory ‘patron’ of the Opera Garnier who could access all areas of the theatre, especially the Foyer de la danse for obvious reasons.

Many decades later, Degas’s dancers had lost their charm. Too many on too many ornaments and posters and postcards meant I didn’t want to see them at all until I did see some of the vibrant original paintings and drawings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Later still, as the mother of a student and later professional dancer, I identified strongly with the woman in black in Degas’s painting, Waiting. Degas perfectly captures the time spent by both young dancer and mother waiting for something – anything – to happen.

But two Degas’s retrospectives have made me think again about the artist who was obsessed with dance and dancers.

How did Degas himself gain access to rehearsal studios, classes, and backstage areas? After a few years, he must have been such a common sight as he trudged around the Opera in Paris that the dancers hardly saw him any more.

He was always watching, seeing how they tied their shoes, adjusted their shoulder straps and draped their shoulders with shawls.

Many words have already been written about the new exhibitions, in London at the Royal Academy of Arts and one soon to open at the Phillips Collection in Washington (titled Degas’s Dancers the Barre: Point and Counterpoint). But two of the most insightful articles are by The New York Times’s dance critic, Alistair Macaulay and The Sunday Times’s art critic, Waldemar Januszczak.

McCaulay brings his dance critic’s eye to The Dance Class” (1873) which will be shown in the Phillips exhibition.

“The whole painting glows” he writes. “You see at once why his dance pictures soon became a large part of his international fame — and yet the thought within it is multilayered.

“The two dancers in the near foreground, on the right, are neither dancing nor watching the dance. One of them is seated; Degas focuses on her fully turned-out feet, attending to the sheer physical oddity of turnout itself.

“Near the centre of the picture two women are each poised on point. But, as always, Degas captures the different emphasis with the same pose. Though they’re the ones dancing, they aren’t bathed in the warm light that catches the dancers at the back of the studio, and their figures are less distinct than the legs and feet of the women who are descending the stairs on the left. If any teacher is in the room, he’s out of sight…”

The London exhibition, titled Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, presents his art in the context of photography developments of the time and the way in which he might have been influenced by photography.

Januszczak is sceptical as “the idea is to set an agenda for Degas that presents his dance art as a quest for movement. But when a show’s agenda has been created artificially by its designers, rather than by the artist, it rarely feels convincing.

“It’s not that he was never influenced by any of the wacky photographic developments unearthed for us here. All this was in the air.

“In the case of Eadweard Muybridge’s famous experiments with animals and humans in motion, we know for certain that Degas took an active interest. Yet by handing over so much of the show’s attention to photo gadgets, by focusing so stiffly on the idea of photographic movement, we seem to be missing out on the more important stuff that lured Degas into his ballet obsession. As with so much modern exhibition-making, these feel like the curator’s obsessions, not the artist’s”.

For a truer sense of what fascinated Degas about dance, Januszczak suggests that we study the three surviving dance photographs that Degas took himself.

These are part of the show and reveal that in Degas’s own hands, “the dance imagery becomes visceral, instinctual, squinty, a touch naughty.

“An anonymous ballerina adjusts the shoulder strap of her dress and reveals a flash of naked breast. She turns her back to us and we catch a sensuous shadow falling across her shoulders. She lifts an arm, and you nearly see her face, but not quite.

“The erotic hint. The magical imprecision. The glimpse in the half light. You can almost hear the suggestive rustle of the silk as these fragments spill so many beans about Degas’s fascination with ballet. This, finally, is photographic information we can trust”.

Degas bought a hand held camera soon after they were released in 1889, hoping to capture dancers in motion. But as the shutter speed was slow, he had to pose dancers in the studio.

A Princeton University blog, written by Morgan Alonso, Princeton class of 2008, ( explains that Degas’s subject stood in three different poses.

All taken 1895, the poses are referred to today as Dancer (Arm Outstretched), Dancer (Adjusting Her Shoulder Strap) and Dancer (Adjusting Both Shoulder Straps).

The three poses in those photographs can be seen in at least two of Degas’s works: Blue Dancers and Four Dancers.

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until December 11.

Degas’s Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint, is at the Phillips Collection, Washington DC, from October 1 to January 8, 2012.


  1. Adrian Ryan
    Posted September 23, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I have often wondered about the notion of these paintings and drawings being a snapshot of reality. A lot of them seem to me to be composed of a number of separately observed drawings, themselves based on reality, but then somehow pasted together to fit an overall larger design. When one tries to examine the “in performance” works in order to get an idea of this supposedly declining period in French ballet, it is almost impossible to work out exactly what is happening on stage. Dancers curtsey towards the audience with posies, others look into the wings, some take choreographic poses, while others adjust their hair – all this in the same painting ! Of course this could be a dress rehearsal but it happens so often that I don’t think this is the explanantion. Degas wasn’t thinking in terms of capturing the reality of performance but rather the marvellous physical images this world is able to throw up for an artist. And he had no compunction about rearranging these images in order to fit an idea held by his inner eye.
    I find I never tire of examining his works to try and unlock the mysteries of this marvellous period of ballet history.

  2. valerie
    Posted September 28, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Adrian, I agree, especially with The Dance Class – those feet on the stairs? I don’t think the dancers upstairs just happened to be walking down while all the other dancers were doing their separate things.

  3. Posted September 26, 2011 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    Brava Valerie, so good to read an article with all the illustrations included, unlike a typical Spectrum article on art. Renoir’s La Loge might be the artist observing the audience at this time, and the reasons they are at the opera or ballet.

  4. valerie
    Posted September 28, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Robert, thank you, that’s the big plus with posting, isn’t it! No layout person to say “only one small pic on this page”.

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Dancer Adjusting her Strap, 1895 by Edgar Degas

Dancer Adjusting her Strap, 1895, photograph by Degas (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris)

Blue Dancers, c.1899

Blue Dancers, c.1899, Pushkin Museum

L'etoile [La danseuse sur la scene] 1878

L’etoile [La danseuse sur la scene], 1878, Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Four Dancers, Degas, c. 1899

Four Dancers, Degas, c. 1899, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Waiting, 1882,  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Waiting, 1882, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

The Dance Class, c. 1873

The Dance Class, c. 1873, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C

Degas, Dancer Adjusting Her Shoulder Strap

Degas, Dancer Adjusting Her Shoulder Strap, negative, 1895

Degas, Arm Outstretched, negative 1895

Degas, Arm Outstretched, negative 1895