Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Though he was one of the group’s founders and core members, Degas never liked to be called an ‘Impressionist.’ He preferred ‘Realist’ or ‘Independent,’ a distinction that reflected his background and artistic vision. From a wealthy Parisian family, his father recognised his talent early and gave his son encouragement and a first-rate education. Young Degas copied Old Masters in the Louvre, trained under one of Ingres’ students at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and spent years studying in Italy.
However by the mid–1860s he turned from lofty Salon themes (the Salon was the official art showcase, promoting conventional painting often on historical, religious and mythological subjects) to the modern subjects favoured by the Impressionists, depicting the experience of living in contemporary society. However, unlike most other Impressionists, Degas’ work continued to emphasise composition and drawing (rather than colour and atmosphere) and he rarely painted outdoors. Degas favoured scenes in theatres and interiors illuminated by artificial light, which he used to clarify the contours of his figures. Fascinated by movement, he painted over 600 ballet scenes, mostly rehearsals or backstage views, the first around 1873.
Though painted a few years earlier, this painting was first shown at the Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1876 and depicts some 21 dancers as they wait their turn to be evaluated by the ballet master Jules Perrot. Four stage mothers are on hand to watch. Degas had never witnessed such an examination and instead invented the composition from numerous drawings executed in his studio while dancers posed for him. The painting was not intended as a composite portrait but rather as a study of moving bodies and the physicality of the dancers using contorted poses and unexpected vantage points.
From a distance the dancers with their white tutus and pink satin shoes seem to fit into conventional ideals of grace and female beauty. However, up close, Degas depicts a harsher reality: hard work, sweat and boredom. Note the blunt concentration of the girl adjusting her dress in the left foreground; the decidedly plain face of the dancer doing a pirouette; the folded arms and slouch of a seated girl. They are not Swan Lake-like gazelles but uneducated, working class girls, the ‘Montmartre types’ with snub noses and stocky, immature bodies that Degas painted so often. These dancers are not concerned with artistic expression or beauty but with making a living.
Like many of his contemporaries, Degas was greatly influenced by Japanese art, newly fashionable in the West since the reopening of trade with Japan in 1854. The inventive compositions, unexpected views, asymmetrical framing and abrupt cut-offs of Japanese prints were considered very modern and Degas incorporated their techniques into his painting. (Degas would also have observed similar cut-offs and unusual framing in the 16th-century Italian Mannerists he studied in Italy.) In this picture, the viewer has an oblique prospect deep into the rehearsal room and out to the rooftops of Paris, which are seen through a window reflected in a mirror on the opposite wall. On either side figures are cut off as if in a snapshot (an anachronistic comparison as the same techniques would not influence photography until the 1880s). A masterly composition, it is unsurprising that Degas’ fellow Impressionist and friend, Mary Cassatt claimed that, in this painting, Degas surpassed Vermeer. And indeed there is as much Old Master as Impressionist in this work. Degas himself wrote, ‘I assure you that no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament … I know nothing.’
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1874 James A. M. Whistler: Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, Detroit, Institute of Arts