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Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

French, 1834 - 1917

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Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was born into a cultured Parisian family that encouraged his interest in music and painting. As a young artist, he studied classical antiquity and became acquainted with the collections of Greco-Roman art in the Louvre Museum in Paris. After a long period of conventional artistic study, Edgar Degas turned his attention to the modern city. In the mid-1860s, he began to represent scenes and personalities from the Paris Opéra, where ballets were performed. As well as recording this world with great vividness, Degas used the dance to create original and challenging works of art about urban life. Known to his contemporaries as "the painter of dancers," Degas devoted more than half his entire artistic output to ballet themes.

The Paris Opéra

Almost all the ballerinas who appear in Degas's pictures and sculptures were associated with the Paris Opéra, one of the leading cultural and social institutions in France. The foremost French composers, librettists, singers, and dancers of the age contributed to its repertoire, and the cream of aristocratic and fashionable society was found in its audiences. When Degas first saw the ballet, the Opéra was located near the center of the city on the rue le Peletier, where his earliest paintings of the dance are situated.

The Opéra was a huge institution that employed around seven thousand people, as well as housed ballet classrooms, rehearsal spaces, and workshops. Its spectacular productions were internationally renowned for their sumptuous costumes, elaborate sets, and dramatic special effects. Tickets were expensive and many were reserved by regular subscribers, or abonnés, placing attendance beyond the reach of most Parisians. Yet the glittering crowds and lavish decor rarely appear in Degas's pictures, which concentrate instead on the hard-working members of the ballet company and fragmentary glimpses of the ballerinas.

The rue le Peletier building was destroyed by fire in 1873, but was soon replaced by the immense new Opéra, known as the Palais Garnier after its designer, Charles Garnier.

The Private World of the Dance

Degas's pictures and sculptures reveal his enduring fascination with the ballerinas' backstage activities, emphasizing their demanding regime and informal off-duty appearance. At first the artist gained access backstage through his friendships with musicians, choreographers, composers, and librettists, but he later secured this privilege as an abonné. He visited the Opéra's classrooms often enough for the dancers not to register his presence as he watched them exercising, resting, adjusting their costumes, or talking to each other.

He drew children taking their first steps and mature women at the end of their careers, showing them at their most awkward and their most poised, in moments of boredom and extreme fatigue. The underpaid and sometimes underfed dancers trained six days a week throughout the year, mastering their technique in classes and rehearsing for performances as part of their grueling routine. Several of them also supplemented their meager income by modeling for the artist in his studio, as Degas never actually painted on the spot.

By looking beyond the glamorous ideal of the ballerina, Degas presented the dancers as hardworking women who struggled to hone their skills, sometimes became dispirited, and only occasionally achieved stardom. As a perfectionist himself, he seems to have identified with their discipline and dedication to their art.

The Ballerinas

Girls were usually between six and eight years old when they entered the Paris Opéra's ballet school, joining the youngest pupils who were known as petits rats, or "little rats." The school selected girls with a body type suitable for a career in classical dance. Most dancers progressed through the ranks by skill and experience, though others were promoted through recommendations from people with influence. Some left the Opéra, unable to cope with the extreme physical demands of the long years of training six days a week.

Those students who passed the appropriate exams eventually became members of the corps de ballet; at this level, they participated in rehearsals and performed in secondary roles. In 1875 the Opéra ballet listed 111 full-time dancers in five categories; étoiles, premiére danseurs, sujets, coryphées, and quadrilles, each group with corresponding status and salary. The stars (étoiles), at the top of the hierarchy, earned the most money, had the most extravagant dressing areas, and received the most acclaim.

It is possible to document Degas's acquaintance with almost fifty dancers, all of them affiliated with the Opéra at some point in their careers. The names and addresses of corps de ballet members who posed for him can be found on his drawings and in his notebooks, and numerous other ballerinas are mentioned in his letters. These reveal considerable familiarity with them as individuals and as professionals, a quality evident in many of his portraits of dancers.

The Classroom

Degas's paintings of ballet classrooms are among his most celebrated and complex works. He based the earliest of them on the practice rooms in the old Opéra house on the rue le Peletier, manipulating the spaces and architectural features as he experimented with his compositions. Several paintings dating to the early 1870s represent the principal classroom known as the foyer de jour, a large room lit by three arched windows.

As Degas painted new variants of the dance class he introduced different elements, such as columns or a spiral staircase, to add fresh pictorial drama. Degas continued to invoke the foyer de jour in his imagination even after the old theater was destroyed in 1873, producing subtle variations on this crucial room, a brutal training ground for new recruits to the dance and the haunt of the exhausted and the idle.

On Stage

The only public space at the Paris Opéra that Degas depicted was the stage, the center of attention for spectators and performers alike and, for the artist, the site of a fascinating intersection of reality and illusion. Degas's views of the stage were very unconventional. Instead of presenting a complete panorama as if scanned by a well-placed audience member, he usually focused on single figures or parts of the set, seen in close proximity or from unusual angles. Features of the performance were often unexpectedly juxtaposed: orchestra players with distant ballet dancers or on-stage figures with glimpses into the wings. In some compositions the action is seen from above, looking down from a point directly above the stage.

Degas made vivid use of light and shadow in his stage compositions, often emphasizing their strange distortions of the performers' features. Theatrical lighting at this date was still primitive, with rows of gas lamps attached to the scenery and some simple electric lights for special effects. The simulation of moonlight, mist, or fire was much admired by contemporary audiences, but Degas preferred to avoid such illusions, depicting his dancers as real individuals standing on a wooden stage. Many of his pictures show faces transformed by dramatic lighting from above or below, and some contrast the gloom of the wings with the dazzling spectacle of performance.

Degas's close-up views often recall the distorted effects of space and focus caused by binoculars or opera glasses, which were common among audiences in his day. His pastels and paintings disrupt the grand public spectacle and emphasize the individual's preferences and location within the theater. They also bridge the gap between viewer and performer, revealing the dancers as imperfect athletes exerting themselves on wooden floorboards, rather than as remote, fairylike creatures.

In the Wings

Entry to the backstage areas of Paris Opéra was via a single door that was either locked or guarded by an Opéra official who maintained a written record of all who used it. Beyond were administrative offices, workshops for making costumes and props, and facilities for singers and orchestra musicians. For dancers there were classrooms, dressing rooms, and the foyer de la danse. The foyer was a rehearsal room and warm-up space, but it was also notorious as a place for dignitaries and abonnés to mingle with dancers during intermissions.

Representing the city's political, financial, and cultural elite, the abonnés permanently reserved at least half of all the seats at the Opéra. A full subscription, for three nights per week, granted access to backstage areas during performances. Records show that Degas used his abonné privilege to go behind the scenes at the Opéra during nearly two hundred performances between 1885 and 1892.

At the time, the sight of a woman's body was not permissible in polite society; it was already a cliché to say that many of the exclusively male subscribers came to see--and some to proposition--the Opéra's scantily clad dancers. Most members of the corps de ballet came from poor families, and some accepted the financial support of the abonnés in exchange for sexual favors. Others established relationships with "protectors," who helped to advance a dancer's career, while a few married wealthy or titled abonnés.

The busiest area was the wings; principally used by performers, stagehands, and managers (though directors, composers, chaperones, celebrities, journalists, artists, and abonnés often joined them). Degas disregarded many of these characters, however, exploiting scenery flats and cropped fields of view to emphasize the ballerinas' sense of expectation, their weariness, or the lurking presence of others backstage.

The Movements of the Greeks

In response to a question posed by Louisine Havemeyer, an American collector and friend of the artist Mary Cassatt, as to why he always painted ballet dancers, the elderly Degas responded: "Because, madame, it is all that is left us of the combined movements of the Greeks."

Like many informed people of his time, Degas firmly believed that the roots of ballet were ancient, dating back to the theater, dance, and music of ancient Greece and even beyond. About the time that Degas made these images, a number of publications presented evidence that linked modern ballet to its classical precedents. Figures in many of his late drawings and sculpture share the elegance and simplicity of Greek images of dancers and, like them, are often shown nude or lightly clothed.

Orgies of Color

In 1899, Degas invited a friend to see work he was making at the time, saying that he would show her some veritable "orgies of color." These were the pastels of Russian dancers. In his final years, he expanded his palette and experimented with a forceful and blunt drawing technique to achieve new levels of energy and pictorial dynamism.

With his health failing, Degas had become more reclusive, rarely attending the Opéra and becoming less concerned with the details of specific ballet productions or events backstage. Dance became a vehicle for extreme statements about the human body, whether at rest or in ever more ponderous movement. He looked to the rich colors of sixteenth-century Venetian paintings, which he had seen in the Louvre Museum, and was also inspired by the innovations of contemporaries such as Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh.

Degas as a Draftsman

Early in his career, Degas was recognized as an exceptional draftsman who applied the technical control of the old masters to modern subjects and materials. Ballet presented him with a number of new challenges; he felt compelled to draw the dancers vividly and accurately, yet they were in constant movement. He watched them intently, sometimes making rapid sketches in the classroom, but also relying on his highly developed power of memory. Notebooks used by the artist over a forty-year period record these instantaneous and on-the-spot impressions that he later incorporated into his pastels and paintings using models or props in the studio.

Degas was unusually inventive in the range of his materials and combinations of techniques. He executed linear studies in pencil, charcoal, chalk, or ink, then colored some of them with pastel, watercolor, gouache (similar to poster paint), essence (oil paint thinned with turpentine), and even metallic pigment. The effect was startlingly fresh and appropriate to the bright lights and colorful costumes of the ballet. In his later years, Degas used pastel more than any other medium, building up dense layers with a rainbow-like intensity that has rarely been equaled.

Degas as a Sculptor

Degas was fascinated by the malleable quality of wax, and composed many small sculptures of both wax and modeling clay over armatures of wire, cork, wood, and other objects. He seems to have used these sculptures alongside his drawings and photographs to understand human and animal movement. Created as studies and easily altered, more than eighty wax sculptures of dancers, women bathing, and horses were found in Degas's studio at his death.

In 1918, Degas's heirs commissioned the Parisian founder Adrien A. Hébrard to reproduce seventy-three of the waxes in bronze. Each of the casts was stamped and numbered to ensure its authenticity and status as part of the authorized edition. The casting process was designed to save the original waxes which, although too fragile to travel, can be seen at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; the Musée d'Orsay, Paris; and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England. The skillful casting of the bronzes was praised when they were exhibited in 1921, and inspired Degas's friend Mary Cassatt to write, "I have studied Degas's bronzes for months. I believe he will live to be greater as a sculptor than as a painter."

Degas and the Dance, 2003

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