This painting is one of a series Degas made in the 1870s examining dancers in the rehearsal room. Assembled in the background of its composition are a group of dancers performing arabesques, while in the foreground, several other figures wait and rest. Degas has managed to convey both the energetic movement of those performing and the quiet placidity of the waiting dancers.
This painting is almost a fly-on-the-wall scene, with lots of things going on at once: people partially obscured, figures broken up by objects in the way, a pair of legs in the top left corner entering from the floor above. It is a snapshot of a moment in time in a place of bustling activity, with people and objects not posed for a picture but chaotic and half-seen, as they are in real life.
But of course the picture has been very carefully composed. It is rigorously structured with strong diagonals and symmetries. The apparent chaos is resolved into a scene that is in practice clear and understandable within a composition that achieves a satisfying equilibrium. This is no surprise; Degas spent hours and hours backstage making preparatory sketches that preceded the artist working with oils on canvas.
Starting with a preliminary sketch of his composition, he would then expand it with added drawn sheets until he had the full picture prepared, which he then transferred to canvas, often using the grid system used by the Italian fresco artists of the Renaissance, whose work he spent two years studying as a young man. Once the composition was worked up, he would then keep retouching and making slight changes until the canvas was taken from him.
The dominant structural element of this work is a spiral staircase, drawn from a wooden model Degas used to study perspective. It is placed at the extreme left of the composition, partially obscuring the row of dancers in the distance behind it. To the right, the picture frame cuts off the static group of figures. Degas gives this painting a wonderful sense of depth through the slanting floorboards that draw our eye further into the scene, the diagonal line of dancers in the middle distance moving across the painting and the sharply receding steps of the staircase.
The only fully detailed figures in this painting are the seated ballet student, wrapped in her blue-green shawl and instinctively splaying her legs to strengthen her inner thigh muscles, and the old woman (actually a likeness of Sabine Neyt, Degas’s housekeeper) who is helping dress the dancers. Just visible in the upper right of the picture is the red-shirted ballet master Jules Perrot, beating time with a stick. Interestingly, this figure of Jules Perrot is not drawn from life, but instead taken from a photograph of Perrot in his younger days when he was working as ballet master for the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg. A comparison of this photograph with the corresponding figure in the painting leaves little doubt that Degas used it as a reference as he worked on the miniature portrait of Perrot in The Rehearsal.
In actuality, the scene represented in The Rehearsal is in its own way an historical fantasy. This rehearsal room never existed in the Palais Garnier, but belongs to its predecessor, the Opera Choiseul on the Rue le Peletier, which had burned to the ground in a catastrophic fire in 1873, before this painting was made. Yet the tall, distinctively shaped windows in the background of The Rehearsal overlooking a leafy courtyard are unmistakable as part of the Opera Choiseul’s distinctive architecture. Degas has created a composite image from photograph, memory and preparatory sketches that still manages to look like a moment snatched in time: no mean feat.
To learn more about the composition of The Rehearsal by Degas, click on the gallery above and ‘show caption’ for each slide
The Rehearsal, c. 1874
Oil on canvas
58.4 x 83.3 cm
Lent by Culture and Sport Glasgow on behalf of Glasgow City Council. Gifted by Sir William and Lady Constance Burrell to the City of Glasgow, 1944. Image © Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums)
G. Bergamasco, ‘Jules Perrot’, c. 1860. Carte-de-visite photograph, 9 x 5 cm. Private Collection © The Bridgeman Art Library, London
Text written by Asha Burchett
© Royal Academy of Arts, 2011