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…
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.