Edgar Degas is one of the best-known Impressionist artists to come out of France at the end of the nineteenth century. He is famed particularly for his paintings and sculptures of ballet dancers. He had close links with the ballet performers at the Paris Opera Ballet and his works depict them in rehearsal, in performance and at rest.
Degas was born in Paris in 1834 to an upper middle-class family. He excelled at his studies and showed great promise in art. He attended the School of Fine Art in Paris, where he perfected many of his techniques. He left the college, though, because he wanted to experience the world and his travels took him to Italy, where he spent time in Naples and Rome. After three years of learning and drawing he returned to Paris. He joined the National Guard, then went to the United States where he visited family in New Orleans. It is here that he began his study of dancers. On his return to Paris, he became involved in the Impressionism movement. He painted many portraits during this period which are highly regarded today. By the end of the 1890s, his eyesight was failing and he became reclusive. He died in Paris in 1917.
Degas and the Ballet
Degas’s links with ballet are so strongly forged that it is difficult to separate his art from it. His works depicting ballet dancers are widely copied in terms of form and composition. There was no doubt, however, that the ballet was Degas’s perfect medium and it was very lucrative for him. The paintings are technically brilliant and they have been copied by many other artists. There is real dynamism in his paintings and he used a wide variety of techniques and materials.
Degas’s painting ‘The Rehearsal’ is considered one of his greatest. The rehearsal is in full swing and is the middle distance. The construction of the painting is more like a photograph in that it is not posed and is merely a record of a particular point in time. The notes he made on this painting show his precision in terms of placing people and limbs and how he made continual adjustments.
Degas’s love of ballet, according to the art critic, John Berger, came from the fact that he saw it as something that mirrored the human condition. Berger recognised that the steps and postures of the dances are similar and appear to be quite formalised in structure but there is also still a sinuousness in each of the dancers’ movements. Degas also liked to use pastels because it gave an impression of light and air within the ballet.
In the 1870s, Degas began to experiment with making sculptures in bronze. Once again, ballet dancers feature heavily in his output, though he also did sculptures of horses. He liked to put real clothes on his statues, which heightened the sense of reality. He was not afraid to divest his dancers of glamour and showed them as they really were. However they are depicted, it is true to say that his statues are dynamic in their composition as they often show the dancers in a position of change.
When it comes to ballet there is no artist who has captured the glamour, the hard work and the ethereal beauty of it more than Edgar Degas.