A review by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!




Degas and the Ballet



Picturing Movement


Edgar Degas
The Dance Lesson, c. 1879
Oil on canvas
38 x 88 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1995.47.6
Photo National Gallery of Art, Washington


Royal Academy of Arts

17 September – 11 December 2011


 “People call me the painter of dancing girls,” Degas told Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard. “It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes”……………….

It’s no surprise that the first room in a remarkable exhibition Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement at the Royal Academy, features a dancer in arabesque, endlessly spinning, and that the last shows Degas in a short, exquisite slice of documentary film footage, shot by Sacha Guitry in 1915, two years before Degas’ death. What makes the latter special is the expression of the woman passer-by as she focuses first on Degas and then turns joyously to the camera in a moment, a movement of recognition. The image serves as a poignant reminder that Degas at the beginning of his fascination with the ballet world in the 1870s, at the same time when the Lumiere brothers made their breakthrough in capturing movement on film, was losing his sight. And that perhaps the advice from his idol Ingres ‘to draw from the imagination’ became more of an emotional urgency than practical purpose.

The focus on movement places the exhibition firmly between twin poles: the new media of the late nineteenth century = photography and film, featuring experimental work by Etienne Jules-Marey, Eadweard Muybridge and the Lumiere brothers; and Degas’ endless pursuit of picturing movement, as in caging a bird to study flight as he moves from ‘the documentary mode of the early 1870’s to the sensuous expressiveness of his final years.

The exhibition, curated by Richard Kendall, Jill DeVonyar and Ann Dumas, is the first of its kind to incorporate a substantial body of Degas’ work from his studies in pencils, charcoal, pastels, oil and bronze sculptures, and contextualise them in relation to contemporary photographic developments. It doesn’t disappoint. There is a dazzling array of up to eighty-five exhibits of mixed media over the ten spaces. Everywhere there is movement: in expression, articulation or locomotion.

Rooms are themed: Describing the Dance, The Panoramic Gaze or Colour and Dynamism, and in most there are filmed or photographic sequences, montage or photo-sculptures in a mix of scientific and artistic discovery. Little gems surprise and delight, such as the rare footage of Serpentine II, of dancer Loie Fuller, dubbed ‘the living sculpture’ and in a moment of artistic synchronicity, photographs by Degas himself, featuring a dancer adjusting her shoulder strap.  

As an artist, Degas presents a curious juxtaposition: a need to portray realism and the drive to emulate the skills of the Italian masters. This duality is in pictures such as The Red Ballet Skirts, 1895 – 1901, pastel on tracing paper, or Three Dancers in Violet Tutus, 1895 – 1898, pastel on paper laid down on board. The skirts in each are vibrantly coloured and textured, yet the poses show backs, shoulders in either repose or attitude. The pictures’ winsomeness is that ballet, like theatre, is a contrived art, yet in rendering his subjects off-guard, waiting in the wings or rehearsing Degas shows the craft without the artifice, in an artful moment of deconstruction. His perspective changes from the stalls to the wings, from the studio/classroom to the stage, always in pursuit of the best angle, the best view.

Two paintings stand out which wittily play with this perception: the first is Ballet scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera ‘Robert le Diable’, 1876, oil on canvass. We are in the stalls, two rows back from Degas’ monogrammed seat. We have to look from the bottom to the top and take in the orchestra, the stage, the dancers and finally, the backdrop. The picture’s depth and light dazzles in its scope but it’s the movement we bring to it as pictorial and, actual audience that gives it true brilliance.  

There is a similar trick of the eye in his asymmetrical painting The Dance Lesson, 1879, oil on canvass, where the eye scans left to right as the dancers appear in relaxed mode, an ironic counterpoint to the picture’s title, and diminish in size like the closure of an aperture. The artful point is that Degas makes the movement of our eyes scan, in a form of animation.
Perhaps the most enduring Degas image is that of a bronze cast of a diminutive girl with protruding stomach in a pose of insouciance, with tilted head and turned out feet, known as the Little Dancer Aged fourteen, 1880 - 1881. She has a room to herself entitled: Seeing the Little Dancer. There is an exquisite set of studies by Degas of her which show a frame by frame composite from every angle. In fact the photographer Nadar sequenced these into an animation.


Edgar Degas
The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, 1880-1, cast c. 1922
Painted bronze with muslin and silk
98.4 x 36.5 cm
Tate. Purchased with assistance from The Art Fund 1952
Image copyright Tate, London, 2010


The wax model of little dancer was later cast in bronze after Degas’ death. Yet when it was first shown, at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, many people found her ‘repulsive,’ a ‘flower of the gutter.’ Degas never exhibited her again during his lifetime. The model, Marie van Goethem, like a strand from an Emile Zola novel, was dismissed from the corps de ballet for repeated lateness and absence; it is alleged that her mother, a laundress and widow, prostituted her daughters. 

Yet here she stands, in a room of her own, at the centre of the exhibition. The bronze is beautiful. The turned-out feet capture in attitude, the one lasting characteristic which links today’s lithesome, ballet dancers to Degas’ more rounded, earthier models - a poetry in motion. Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement shows the essence of this poetry and is a fascinating exploration of Degas’ radical approach to movement, dance and art, as well as the quest, even in its earliest stages, to push photography and film to its limits in trying to capture, picture, movement.…..


Edgar Degas
Dancers, c. 1899
Pastel on tracing paper laid down on board
588 x 463 mm
Princeton University Art Museum. Bequest of Henry K. Dick, Class of 1909.
Image Bruce M. White

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