Degas sent work to all but one of the Impressionist group exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. But although he was a radically innovative painter in terms of his constant experimentation with new techniques and media, as well as his strikingly original compositions, his work was nevertheless grounded in a rigorously academic training, first under a pupil of Ingres, then at the École des Beaux-Arts. There followed a three-year visit to Italy where he studied the Renaissance masters. Degas’ work is therefore distinguished from most of the Impressionists principally in his emphasis on the importance of line and also (excepting his late work) in his use of often quite subdued colour. Furthermore, he rarely painted en plein air, preferring to paint in the studio from sketches done on the spot. These distinctions did not go unnoticed by the critics who in general spared Degas from much of the rough treatment handed out to his colleagues in reviews of the early Impressionist exhibitions. As one critic put it ‘We do not know why Monsieur Degas has included himself in the Impressionist fold. He has a distinct personality and stands apart in this group of self-styled innovators.’
Two dancers from the corps de ballet are on stage. They are executing set ballet positions — perhaps as part of a performance for they are lit by the harsh limelight emanating from the stage rim. Degas has chosen to place them off centre — the hand of one of the dancers has been cut off by the right edge of the frame and a fragment of a third dancer’s tutu can be seen intruding from the left. In between and extending toward the viewer is an expanse of freely painted stage. It is as though one has been walking in the wings of the ballet (as Degas did) and very quickly glimpsed this scene as one passes. It is a snapshot, not a posed piece — because everyday life is not posed. Degas was interested in trying to portray things as the eye might actually perceive them, where the angle of view will, more often than not, preclude a perfect compositional arrangement. It is unsurprising that he, like many of his Impressionist colleagues, was interested in photography.
Degas painted over 600 ballet scenes, far more than any other subject, not all depicting a performance on stage. He roamed at will behind the scenes, like many wealthy male devotees, capturing the dancers at rest or practising in rehearsal rooms or parts of the labyrinthine back-stage areas.
The corps de ballet was made up of poor working class girls. Degas refers to the low-born status of the two girls in this picture in a somewhat cruel way. Their facial features, with their upturned noses, reflect contemporary conceptions, associating the lower classes with certain facial characteristics. Notwithstanding his known interest in physiognomy one would like to think that Degas may have been undermining these ideas with his depiction of the elegant poses of the dancers, but bearing in mind his generally reactionary views, we cannot be sure that this was what he had in mind.
Image: Courtauld Institute Gallery
1873 Paul Cézanne: Dr Gachet’s House, Paris, Musée d’Orsay
1874 Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: Lady in Blue; Paris, Musée du Louvre
1875 James A. M. Whistler: Nocturne in Blue and Gold (The Falling Rocket), Detroit, Institute of Arts