Degas and the Ballet

Published 1 September 2011

Discover how photographic inventions helped Degas animate his figures in pastel and paint.

  • Degas is known, above all, as the artist of the dance. No artist before or since has explored the subject so extensively, with such subtlety or in such depth. Yet his young ballerinas in colourful tutus are often perceived, at least in the popular imagination, as chocolate-box art: pretty but insubstantial. Nothing could be further from the truth. Degas was one of the most radical, experimental artists of his day, fearlessly pushing beyond accepted boundaries in both subject and technique, and embracing the technological discoveries of the exciting age in which he lived.

  • Edgar Degas, Two Dancers on the Stage

    Edgar Degas, Two Dancers on the Stage, c. 1874.

    The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

  • Degas was famous for the terse economy of his observations, and his own words offer few clues to his obsession with the dance. The dealer Ambroise Vollard recalled the artist as an old man remarking: “They call me the painter of dancers. They don’t understand that, for me, the dancer was a pretext for painting pretty fabrics and rendering movement.” While “the pretty fabrics” reinforces the cliché, “rendering movement” gets us closer to the heart of the matter. For Degas, the moving figure was the most compelling challenge and in the dance he found his ideal subject.

    The RA’s exhibition Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement sets out to present Degas in a new light. It explores his fascination with movement, expressed through the dance, in the broader context of the technical experiments of his day, particularly photography and early film. Photography, which had emerged around 1839, had, by the 1870s, become all the rage. Photographs proliferated in Degas’s world. Calling cards bearing little photographs, called cartes de visite, were immensely popular. Anyone with the slightest social pretensions had to have one, and for the stars of the world of entertainment, ballet and opera, they were an effective publicity tool. Celebrities’ cartes de visite were eagerly collected and pasted into albums.

  • Edgar Degas, Dancer Posing for a Photograph

    Edgar Degas, Dancer Posing for a Photograph, 1875.

    The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

  • Photographs, from the beginning, were closely bound up with art. Increasingly, artists used photographs as models, aides-mémoire and to record their art. The first exhibition of the radical fringe group that became known as the Impressionists, of which Degas was a leading figure, was held in the former studio of the photographer Félix Nadar on the Boulevard des Capucines in 1874. Dancer Posing for a Photograph (1875), on loan from the Pushkin Museum, was the title Degas gave to his luminous painting of a dancer set against a cool, blue Paris roof-scape seen through the studio window – a clear indication of his familiarity with the photographic world.

    From the moment Degas took up dance subjects around 1870, his work intersects with photography. In some of his early dance paintings we find him emulating, and perhaps even mocking, the conventions of the carte de visite, although more often than not Degas was ahead of the game and able to capture the sense of dancers moving on stage, which at the time was beyond the capacity of the camera. The pose of the principal dancer in Two Dancers on the Stage, (c.1874) on loan from the Courtauld, resembles that of the famous ballet star Marie Sanlaville in her carte de visite photograph. On close inspection of the card we discover that the dancer’s arm is held up by a string so that she could maintain the pose during the required long exposure, whereas in his painting Degas achieves a naturalistic effect of spontaneous movement with paint alone.

    Many of the early dance class and rehearsal scenes, such as The Rehearsal (c.1874) document the dancers’ positions in a fairly straightforward way. A couple of years later, Degas would execute his most ambitious attempt at capturing movement on stage to date in Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera, ‘Robert le Diable’ (1876). The scene in question is a curious one in which the ghosts of young nuns rise up from their graves to perform an orgiastic moonlit dance. Degas depicts them on stage as whirling figures caught in a blur of white brush strokes, again anticipating an effect the camera would not achieve until later.

  • Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen

    Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, 1880-81, cast 1922.

    The Art Institute of Chicago, Bequest of Adele R. Levy/Photo © The Art Institute of Chicago.

  • In 1881, at the sixth exhibition of the Impressionist group, Degas astounded the Paris art public with the most daringly innovative sculpture the century had seen, the now famous Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen (1880-81). The only sculpture by Degas that he exhibited in his lifetime, the wax figure was dressed in a fabric tutu, with a wig of real hair and satin ballet slippers. Its startlingly life-like attributes astonished viewers accustomed to high-art sculpture in marble or bronze. In the words of the brilliant critic, Joris-Karl Huysmans: “The fact is that, at one fell swoop, M. Degas has overthrown the traditions of sculpture, as he has for a long time been shaking up the conventions of painting.”

    This exhibition, which explores the relationship between Degas, photography and film, was the inspired vision of co-curators Richard Kendall and Jill DeVonyar, and is the result of their extensive, original research into the subject, which is published in the exhibition catalogue. They have, for the first time, analysed the series of remarkable preparatory drawings that Degas made for the Little Dancer, showing how, like a cinematic camera, he tracked round his subject, the 14-year-old corps de ballet dancer Marie van Goethem, scrutinising her from around 20 different viewpoints. This approach recalls earlier photographic experiments such as those of Félix Nadar, who photographed himself as he spun round in a revolving chair. There was also a passing fad in the 1860s called photosculpture, in which a model was captured in the round by a series of simultaneously shot photographs taken by a circle of cameras placed around the model, producing images which would serve as the basis for a portrait sculpture.

    Drawing from the human figure was fundamental to the traditional training that was at the root of Degas’s art, so it is not surprising that drawing is always the basis of his exploration of the dance. Several of the studies that he made for The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen are highly resolved, exquisite drawings, in some cases heightened with pastel, such as Three Studies of a Dancer in Fourth Position (c.1878-81). In contrast to these are the numerous informal drawings made in classrooms or with dancers posing in the artist’s studio – experiments in which he captured dancers on the wing as he tried to pin down in a split-second a pirouette or a difficult move, as in his charcoal drawing Dancer (Préparation en dedans) from c.1880-85, in which the dancer literally throws herself into the position. These private, experimental drawings were never intended for sale or exhibition. Found among the heaps of drawings and paintings in Degas’s studio on the Boulevard de Clichy in Montmartre after his death in September 1917, they offer a remarkable insight into the artist’s working process. Notations on the drawings reveal Degas’s detailed knowledge of dance steps. The repeated outlines of arms and legs may be mere revisions but they also suggest the passage of a limb as it moves through space.

  • Eadweard Muybridge, Dancing (Fancy), pl.189 from the photographic portfolio Animal Locomotion

    Eadweard Muybridge, Dancing (Fancy), pl.189 from the photographic portfolio Animal Locomotion, 1884-86.

    (WA1937.23, Bequeathed by Mrs W.F.R. Weldon, 1937).

  • A quite different photographic invention was the panoramic views that were sometimes presented as dioramas, as in Panorama of the Rue de la Paix and the Garnier Opera House (1889). Taken with a special camera that could scan across a wide space, these panoramas may have influenced the highly original, frieze-like format that Degas employed in a number of his most beautiful dance-class subjects. In The Dance Lesson (c.1879) the seated girl in her brilliant orange shawl anchors the diagonal thrust of the composition in which seemingly random clusters of dancers rhythmically interact with empty space.

    The RA exhibition aims to restore Degas as a participant in the exciting age of technological discovery, of increasing movement and speed in the new urban environment of the time. Although none of Degas’s artist contemporaries responded so fully to the challenge of depicting movement, he was not alone in this quest. His fellow innovators were not so much painters, however, as pioneer high-speed photographers, notably Eadweard Muybridge and especially the highly inventive French scientist Etienne-Jules Marey. Both were adept at promoting their work to large audiences. Muybridge travelled extensively to demonstrate his stop-action photographs of figures and animals in movement, including a woman dancing, which is illustrated in his Animal Locomotion (1884-86). These were enthusiastically received in America and Europe, and he gave two lectures at the Royal Academy in 1882 and 1889. Degas may well have attended a lecture that Muybridge gave at Marey’s home in Paris to a group of scientists, artists and writers, and certainly he made drawings from his photographs of horses. Marey succeeded in freezing the movement of the human figure in photographs taken in a thousandth of a second or less and actually made his own sculptures to demonstrate the movement of birds in flight. In his rudimentary films – filmes chronophotographiques – such as Men in Movement (1890-1904) the overlapping figures suggest the continuous movement unfolding through space and time. The experiments of Muybridge and Marey were known to Degas through such publications as the popular science magazine La Nature, which Degas mentions in a notebook of 1879, where he jotted down both names.

  • Edgar Degas, Three Dancers, Landscape Scenery

    Edgar Degas, Three Dancers, Landscape Scenery, c. 1895-98.

    Pastel. Private Collection.

  • The notion of sequential movement, as recorded by Muybridge and Marey, seems to have informed a number of Degas’s later pastels of dancers, such as the eloquent charcoal and pastel drawing Three Studies of a Ballerina (c.1900-05). The three views of a single dancer show her in sequential movement. A more dramatic effect is seen in a pastel of a trio of dancers in shimmering blue-and-orange costumes, Three Dancers, Landscape Scenery (1895-98). Degas was an artist who was committed to portraying modern life in the most realistic terms, so his interest in photography is not surprising. But although he had been aware of it for most of his career, it was not until around 1895, when he was 61, that he bought a camera. Devoting himself intensively for a year to photography, he concentrated on carefully composed portraits of his friends, sometimes experimenting with night-time effects. Three remarkable photographs of dancers are an exception and these exist only in the form of fragile glass negatives conserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Modern prints made from these will be shown in the exhibition. Although it seems likely that Degas made more photographs of dancers, these are the only known ones that survive. The compelling poses that he explores in these photographs were pursued in related drawings and pastels, notably in the Dancers (c.1899), a glowing composition in turquoise, cerulean blue and rose pink that is one of the highlights of the show.

    Pastel became Degas’s principal medium after the mid-1880s. He developed an ingenious technique of fixing each layer of colour using his own specially made fixative, allowing him to build up layers of superimposed intense hues without them muddying together.

  • Edgar Degas, The Red Ballet Skirts

    Edgar Degas, The Red Ballet Skirts, c.1895-1900.

  • In the great series of pastels of dancers made in the late 1890s, which are the triumphant culmination of Degas’s career, the dancers twist and turn on themselves in densely coloured, Catherine-wheels of form (see The Red Ballet Skirts, c.1895-1900). Although in these works the dancers are less obviously in motion than in the earlier works, their rich textures and vibrating colours convey a new kind of animate vitality (see Two Dancers Resting, c.1898). Some of Degas’s most dazzling late pastels, in which brick reds and fiery oranges burn against richly textured backgrounds of softer blues and greens, were inspired by a visiting troupe of Russian dancers, and three pastels of them are on view in the exhibition (see Russian Dancers, c.1899). Quite possibly these also owe something to one of the very first films shown in Paris by the pioneering Lumière Brothers, which recorded a similar, if not the same, dance troupe.

    In the last few years of his life near-blindness prevented Degas from working. Formally attired in his dark suit and top hat, he would spend long hours riding the omnibus or walking the streets of Paris. Just two years before his death in 1917, the well-known film director Sacha Guitry captured the artist for a few seconds in a unique film clip, also in the show. It is both eloquent and poignant that this great experimental artist of the 19th century should be recorded at the end of his long, productive life by the new medium of the new century.

  • Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, Main Galleries, 17 September –11 December

    Ann Dumas is a curator at the RA.

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