Degas and the celebration of female dance at the Opera

Degas and the celebration of female dance at the Opera

  • End of arabesque.

    DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

  • The star.

    DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

To close

Title: End of arabesque.

Author : DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 67 - Width 38

Technique and other indications: Oil and petrol paint, pastel on canvasOther title: Dancer waving. Around 1876-1877.

Storage place: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 05-529018 / RF4040

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

To close

Title: The star.

Author : DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 58 - Width 42

Technique and other indications: Pastel on paper.Other title: Dancer on stage. Around 1876-1877.

Storage place: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 05-529009 / RF12258

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: November 2009

Agrégée in Italian, Doctorate in Contemporary History at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines

Historical context

"Painter of the dancers": thus Manet defines Degas in a letter addressed to Fantin-Latour in 1868, anticipating the judgment of the critics by ten years; so he is still known today because of the large number of works he devoted to this subject from 1860 until the 1890s. How he can attend classes, rehearsals, shows and the rest of the dancers and that, moreover, he often invites them into his studio, Degas is well acquainted with their habits and their working environment, the hard training hidden behind the light and elegant gestures and the smiles displayed on the stage.

Degas' preference for female subjects in his works on dance - the only men represented are the ballet masters, (see From class to stage, the Paris Opera ballet seen by Edgar Degas) - reflects d 'elsewhere a trend of the time. Male dance then experienced its lowest level of popularity: men no longer won the favor of the public and the directors of the Opera, as was the case in the 18th century or in the first half of the 19th century. While ballet remains a refined genre, it also reflects the spirit of the Belle Époque.

The dancers who pose for Degas in the theater and in his studio belong to all levels of the Opera hierarchy - the only men represented are the ballet masters (see De la classe à la scène, le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris seen by Edgar Degas). Unlike the moralists who consider all dancers to be women of petty virtue, without really knowing their life in the theater, Degas is well aware that the ballerinas of the Opera fall into two categories: girls like Marie van Goethem (see De la class on the stage, the ballet of the Paris Opera seen by Edgar Degas who, often pushed by their mothers, widows or single people with meager incomes, enter the Opera to find men willing to support them and possibly to marry them ; and artists with an irreproachable reputation like Marie Taglioni (see Degas sculptor and the daring realism of the 14 year old dancer), Adèle Grantzow, Emma Livry, Rosita Mauri or Cléo de Mérode.

Image Analysis

In the imposing body of paintings that Degas devotes to the dancers, triumph on the stage is rarely addressed: even if the celebration of the dancer is constant there, the painter prefers more intimate situations. However, the theme of the dancer thanking her audience is a challenge that Degas takes up with its own originality in two works produced between 1876 and 1877, End of arabesque or Dancer waving and The Star or Dancer on stage.

If they represent the artists in an almost identical pose, the two canvases nevertheless offer important differences: in the first painting, the ballerina is in arabesque, her head tilted to her right, and holds a bouquet in her right hand. Her attitude, her bouquet and her colorful tutu, as well as the sets visible in the background, suggest that this is a representation, but, behind her, a messy group of dancers in pink and light blue stage costumes indicates that she is participating in a rehearsal on stage.

In the second painting, the dancer in the foreground also tilts her head to the right with grace and certainty. In the background appear a few dancers more or less hidden behind the scenes and the almost eerie silhouette of a man - probably the star's lover - whose black suit contrasts with the dazzling clarity of the main ballerina's tutu.

The composition of the two tables allows an interesting comparison. The star appears as divided into three sectors: two trapezoids, the upper one occupied by the wings and the figures, the lower one occupied by the floor, and a triangle in which the dancer is inscribed and of which her right hand constitutes the top. The fact that the figure of the dancer is not exactly in the middle of the composition in no way diminishes its symbolic centrality, but rather breathes life into the whole picture, an effect which is further accentuated by the bird's eye view adopted by Degas. On the other hand, the composition of the End of arabesque is stifling: the figure in the foreground contrasts in its dimensions with the figures in the background, far removed from it.

Interpretation

European culture of the XIXe century is divided between idealized exaltation and the real marginalization of women, forced to respect the rules established by a society of men, which, however, create loopholes and justifications for themselves. The characters of the romantic ballets correspond to this double image of the woman, sometimes angelic creature, sometimes diabolical. Degas does not adhere to this mythology and prefers to paint the real world of women without judging it. He exalts female dance in its fatigue, its triumphs, its melancholy, its daily life. Toni Bentley rightly writes that her "ballet scenes express a whole universe, that which the dancers inhabit - unique, specific, closed and devoted to the pursuit of an ideal". In the hard training of the dancers, in the fatigue caused by exercises and repetitions, doesn't Degas see the reflection of his own work as an artist?

  • dance
  • women
  • impressionism
  • ballet

Bibliography

Patrick BADE, Degas. The masterpieces, translated from English by Jacques-François Piquet, Paris, Hazan, 1994. Jill DEVONYAR and Richard KENDALL, Degas and dance, translated from the American by Christine Piot, Paris, Éditions de La Martinière, 2004. Antoine TERRASSE, All Degas, Paris, Flammarion, 1982, 2 volumes.

To cite this article

Gabriella ASARO, "Degas and the celebration of female dance at the Opera"


Video: Degass Dances