Degas and His Dancers

A major exhibition and a new ballet bring the renowned artist's obsession with dance center stage

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“Yesterday I spent the whole day in the studio of a strange painter called Degas,” Parisian man of letters Edmond de Goncourt wrote in his diary in 1874. “Out of all the subjects in modern life he has chosen washerwomen and ballet dancers . . . it is a world of pink and white . . . the most delightful of pretexts for using pale, soft tints.” Edgar Degas, 39 years old at the time, would paint ballerinas for the rest of his career, and de Goncourt was right about the pretext. “People call me the painter of dancing girls,” Degas later told Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard. “It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.”

Degas loved to deflate the image people had of him, but his words ring true, expressing his love for the grace of drawing and the charm of color. As a student Degas dreamed of drawing like Raphael and Michelangelo, and he later revived the French tradition of pastels that had flourished with the 18th-century master Chardin. But like his contemporaries, Manet, Cézanne and the Impressionists, he lived in an age of photography and electricity, and he turned to aspects of modern life—to slums, brothels and horse races—to apply his draftsmanship. Bathing nudes became a favorite subject, but he once compared his more contemporary studies to those of Rembrandt with mocking wit. “He had the luck, that Rembrandt!” Degas said. “He painted Susanna at the bath; me, I paint women at the tub.”

At the ballet Degas found a world that excited both his taste for classical beauty and his eye for modern realism. He haunted the wings and classrooms of the magnificent Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opéra and its Ballet, where some of the city’s poorest young girls struggled to become the fairies, nymphs and queens of the stage. As he became part of this world of pink and white, so full of tradition, he invented new techniques for drawing and painting it. He claimed the ballet for modern art just as Cézanne was claiming the landscape. The writer Daniel Halévy, who as a youth often talked with Degas, later noted that it was at the Opéra that Degas hoped to find subjects of composition as valid as Delacroix had found in history.

Now Degas’s pencil and chalk drawings, monotype prints and pastels, oil paintings and sculptures of ballerinas have been gathered from museums and private collections around the world for an exhibition entitled “Degas and the Dance.” The show was organized by the American Federation of Arts along with the Detroit Institute of the Arts, where it was first shown last year, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it is on display through May 11. In the accompanying catalog, guest curators and art historians Richard Kendall, a Degas authority, and Jill DeVonyar, a former ballet dancer, trace Degas’s life backstage based on their research in the records of the Paris Opéra Ballet. And this month at the Palais Garnier, the Ballet will premiere a dazzling new work, La Petite Danseuse de Degas, about the ballerina who posed for Degas’s most celebrated sculpture, the Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. Sparked by research in the late 1990s by the ballet company’s cultural director, Martine Kahane, and choreographed by Opéra ballet master Patrice Bart, the new work—part fact, part fantasy—is designed to evoke the world of ballet that entranced Degas and to capture the atmosphere of his paintings.

The ballerinas Degas bequeathed to us remain among the most popular images in 19th-century art. The current exhibition is a reminder of just how daring the artist was in creating them. He cropped his pictures as a photographer would (and also became one); he defied traditional composition, opting for asymmetry and radical viewpoints; and he rubbed pastels over his monotype (or one-of-a-kind) prints, creating dramatic effects. Yet he always managed to keep an eye on the great masters of the past. His younger friend, the poet Paul Valéry, described him as “divided against himself; on the one hand driven by an acute preoccupation with truth, eager for all the newly introduced and more or less felicitous ways of seeing things and of painting them; on the other hand possessed by a rigorous spirit of classicism, to whose principles of elegance, simplicity and style he devoted a lifetime of analysis.”

Degas became a painter in an extraordinary period and place. He was born in Paris in 1834, two years after Manet and during a decade that saw the birth of the painters Cézanne, Monet, Renoir and Berthe Morisot and the poets Mallarmé and Verlaine. His father was a banker and art lover who supported his son’s studies, sending him in 1855 to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. The family had branches in Italy and in the United States (his mother was Creole, born in New Orleans), and young Degas went to Italy to study the masters, spending several years in Naples, Florence and Rome, where he copied Vatican treasures and Roman antiquities, before returning to Paris in 1859. There he at first labored with huge canvases—historical subjects and portraits like those Ingres and Delacroix had painted a generation before— for the RoyalAcademy’s official Salon exhibitions. Then in 1862, while copying a Velázquez at the Louvre, Degas met the artist Edouard Manet, who drew him into the circle of Impressionist painters. It was in part due to Manet’s influence that Degas turned to subjects from contemporary life, including café scenes, the theater and dance.

Degas’s affluence was not unique among the painters of his day. His young friend Daniel Halévy called him “one of the children of the Second Empire,” a period that had produced an enormously rich bourgeoisie. These artists, Halévy said, included “the Manets, the Degas, the Cézannes, the Puvis de Chavannes. They pursued their work without asking anything of anyone.” As Halévy saw it, financial independence was the root of modern art in his day. “Their state of liberty is rare in the history of the arts, perhaps unique,” he reflected. “Never were artists freer in their researches.” Degas found a studio and an apartment in the bohemian district of Montmartre, where he lived and worked most of his life. It was a quarter of artists’ studios and cabarets, the well-off and the poor, washerwomen and prostitutes. As Kendall and DeVonyar point out, his neighbors over the years included Renoir, Gustave Moreau (later Matisse’s teacher), Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt and van Gogh, as well as musicians, dancers and other artists who worked at the Paris Opéra and its ballet. One of Degas’s close friends was the writer Ludovic Halévy (Daniel’s father), who collaborated with popular composers such as Delibes, Offenbach and Bizet. The artist could walk from his apartment to the gallery of art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, where he showed one of his first ballet pictures in 1871, and to the old rue Le Peletier opera house, which was destroyed by fire in 1873.

Opera and ballet were a fashionable part of Parisian cultural life, and Degas was likely in the audience long before he began to paint the dancers. Indeed, some of his first dance paintings portray the audience and orchestra as prominently as the ballerinas onstage. Degas also wanted to get behind the scenes, but that wasn’t easy. It was a privilege paid for by wealthy male subscription holders, called abonnés, who often lurked in the foyers, flirted with the dancers in the wings and laid siege to their dressing rooms. Degas at first had to invoke the help of influential friends to slip him into the ballerinas’ private world (he would later become an abonné himself). In a circa 1882 letter to Albert Hecht, a prominent collector and friend, he wrote, “My dear Hecht, Have you the power to get the Opéra to give me a pass for the day of the dance examination, which, so I have been told, is to be on Thursday? I have done so many of these dance examinations without having seen them that I am a little ashamed of it.”


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