Degas and the Ballet, Picturing Movement: A Review

by giselletellstales

Exhibited at Royal Academy of Arts, London until 11th December 2011

Known lovingly in the art world as The Painter of Dancers, Edgar Degas is one of my favourite Impressionists. His paintings of ballerinas in particular are groundbreaking in capturing their grace, movements and form. He has changed the way light is seen and depicted in pictures. The morning sun in the above painting highlights the freshness of the day, the youth and beginning career of the dancers themselves.

This exhibit displays his experiments related to tackling the “figure in motion”. The amount of works displayed is quite astonishing, although there were certain “dance” paintings I expected to see that were not there; I suppose the Royal Academy either could not acquire them, or deemed them irrelevant. There were the different mediums he utilised: oil on canvas, pencil on paper, black chalk heightened with white on blue paper, charcoal heightened with white on green paper, pastel on boards, and in later years, wax and photography. There were images of his subjects with their own props, particularly cords to support their uplift arms, to enable them to remain motionless for hours.

It was enjoyable and refreshing to see Degas recording subtle movements made by dancers away from the stage – resting, bending, adjusting their costumes. He cleverly executes the principle of emphasis in a painting of a dancer posing for a photograph against the backdrop of Paris. He moves the viewer’s gaze away from the dancer herself, and onto the view in the background. In a series of horizontal paintings, he was excellent in depicting a frieze-like view of a scene. In one, the setting is a ballet studio and within it he shows the contrast between the activity of dancers on the left side, and the repose of a teacher on the other side.

He had a fascination with the arabesque and was studious in painting the outstretched arms, diagonal lines and curves of the form. Among his sculptures, the most outstanding for me was Dancer Ready to Dance, Right Foot Forward which I found to be striking, dramatic and captured with exceptional frankness.

It was revealing to learn that in his mature years, Degas also painted the exuberance of Ukrainian dancers: their costumes (lace, ribbons, layered skirts), high kicks and actions. He paints these in stunning vibrant colours, a direct contrast to the muted pastels of his ballet paintings.

Degas was influenced at the time by the works and methods of photographers Felix Nadar, Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge who were equally fascinated by capturing the several phases of movement of their subjects. There were extensive displays of the works and photographic devices of the 3 artists as well.

Dance is linked to music, and Degas is a master of having recorded its richness – its “rhythm, texture and colour harmonies” in his art. I am grateful for the closing film of director Sacha Guitry who secretly (but not guiltily) filmed Degas, almost blind, as he walked past the camera. Lasting seconds, it is a beautiful, moving finish to this exhibition, which is a brilliant performance in itself.

I leave the Academy with a lingering sense of calm and a feeling of having been in the presence of greatness.

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