Edgar Degas – The Ballet Class (1871 – 1874)

Compared to the other Impressionists, Edgar Degas was more of a traditionalist. The Frenchman didn’t paint en plein air, his color palette was subdued for much of his career and his spontaneity was painstakingly rehearsed. With a fascination for human anatomy reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci, he would do countless studies for one single painting. All the effort was certainly worth it, as few artists captured the transience of human movement better than he did.

Today, we first and foremost remember Degas for his ballerinas, whom he started painting in the 1870s and continued doing so for the rest of his life. He may have identified with the world of the opera and the price one must pay for perfection in the countless hours of rehearsals and physical exertion. There was an intense amount of hard work behind the fleeting, flawless performances and, ever the perfectionist and self-doubter, Degas may have seen a parallel to his own artistic struggles. While the rest of the world had their eyes on the public performances under the spotlights, Degas – having gained access backstage – wanted to show us what went on behind the curtains: the rehearsals, the lessons, the stretching and warming up, the auditions, the social interactions, the not-so-glamorous poses…

Edgar Degas - The Ballet Class
Edgar Degas – The Ballet Class (1871-1874), oil on canvas

In The Ballet Class we’re witnessing the end of a lesson offered by Jules Perrot, a prominent ballet master of the Opera of Paris at the time. You can see him in the center of the painting measuring the cadence with his baton. He kind of looks like Mr. Miyagi, doesn’t he? Perrot is surrounded by ballerinas whose patience is running thin. A ballerina in the foreground is standing still and holding a fan, while still paying attention to the instructor. To her left, sitting on a piano, a girl is twisting to scratch her back and closing her eyes with delight, probably the most candid snapshot that Degas captured. Next to her, another girl is adjusting her earring. To the back of the room, we see many dancers sitting, with their arms folded, engrossed in conversations. Their mothers are close by, some talking, others observing the lesson. With her back turned to us, one of them is fixing her daughter’s appearance. You can zoom in here.

There is a lot of movement suggested by Degas, not least because of the diagonal floor and the aerial viewpoint. We are in the room, but still kept at a distance, able to observe a lot of what is going on. It’s also interesting to see how the Frenchman individualized the dancers. Although they’re all dressed in white tutus – and often indistinguishable during a performance – here the artist differentiates the ballerinas  through their accessories (the ribbons around their middle, their bracelets and earrings, the flowers in their hair) and the way they conduct themselves.

Degas shows us that the dancers are not just the flawless performers we see on stage. They’re human, after all. You cannot help but feel sympathy for these young girls who are eagerly waiting for their ballet class to be over.

16 thoughts on “Edgar Degas – The Ballet Class (1871 – 1874)

  1. What a painting. The zooming in also showed a tiny little dog beside the girl in the foreground.
    It is like capturing a photograph of time, when time is taking a break from all of its continuous movement.
    “the spontaneity was painstakingly rehearsed ” , I love this phrase. I think this differentiates amateurs and wannabes from the true master and professionals of the art.

    Thank you for the share, Gabriela as well as the analysis. !

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes! There’s also a watering can. These small details give it a warmer, more intimate feeling.

      You’re right, we’re mostly looking at professionals thinking it’s all talent, without acknowledging the thousands of hours of work behind their masterpieces/performances.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for sharing the link, Emma. He was quite the chemist. It’s my understanding that the aerial viewpoints, the diagonal perspective and, I assume, the flat colors you’re referring to were inspired by the Japanese prints which were popular at the time. These certainly made his art look more dynamic.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. “The Ballet Class” is an exemplary achievement in painting, to be sure. However, personally speaking, I’ve never been able to get into Degas.I can admire his compositions, but compared to some of his contemporaries, he seems terribly dry and academic to me.

    I used to think he must just love ballerinas, but evidence suggests otherwise, with vengeance. He called them “little monkey-girls” and “little rats”, though I don’t think he invented those terms. There were predatory sorts of men who frequented the backstage, and Degas often depicts them as well. I gather it is their derogatory, jaded, cynical, and hypocritical terminology.

    I shouldn’t take those account of him, such as that he was a misanthrope to heart. Maybe that’s just the story people like to tell. Nevertheless, I don’t see much compassion for the girls. I suppose I like a warmer art.

    This reminds me that I saw a short documentary on one of the current Russian ice-skating stars, and her Russian rival. Quite naturally, the piece (put out by RT) brought out their human side. Degas seems to focus on revealing the factual, animal side, the strained tendons and sore backs. In short, he seems to want to demystify ballet and girls. And here I guess I have to admit I must be a romantic, because I’m always going to be more fascinated by the mystery in art and people which really is there.

    Accomplished painter, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s possible we’re blinded these days by the positive associations we have for ballerinas , so we might easily assume that he loved them. I’m not convinced that he hated them either though. I had come across a positive quote at some point – that ballerinas had trapped his heart – but I really can’t find it now. Which raises the question whether it was legit.

      Let’s say he only said disparaging things, calling them monkeys and rats. I still don’t find him cold. He must have admired their endurance, at the very least, why else paint them so frequently and in that light? He could have used harsher colors and pointed to their moral failings. While he focused on the physical, I don’t get the sense that he disrespected them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like your stance. I do think the misanthrope thing is a bit of sensationalism. Perhaps it’s intended to deflect the idea that he’s another Balthus. I like his Absinthe Drinker. See, I’m sorta’ a sucker for more obvious emotional content.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Wow, I really see no parallel to Balthus. I must have too high of a tolerance for these kinds of things? In “The Ballet Class” I see the ballerinas as completely innocent, with no underlying sexual tension.

          Liked by 1 person

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