Degas: More than Just a Genius of Movement

Artists Oct 15, 2011

It is hard to imagine a world without Monet and his water lilies, and so much more without Edgar Degas and his ballerinas. Ever since I saw Degas’ works at the Musee d’ Orsay, I was introduced to a fascinating behind-the-scenes world of ballet dancers, which were more interesting than the actual spectacle.

Clearly, ballet was the domain of Edgar Degas, who was known to be a fixture of the Paris Opera in the late 19th century in his attempt to capture movement and beauty. But in this exhibit at the Royal Academy of Art, there was so much more about Degas that I didn’t know. I expected only to be bombarded by images of ballerinas, but the exhibit also focused on his creative process and his experimentation with the technological advances of his time.

Ann Dumas of the Royal Academy

The genius of Degas is of course his way of capturing special and unguarded moments. Just look at the many images of ballet dancers slumped in a corner or when they are just in repose such as in the Dance Lesson and the Dance rehearsal. He captured this essence of spontaneity but framed the scenes asymmetrically allowing us an experience of seeing it mid-scene. The composition of his paintings made me wonder whether he was sketching or fiddling with an advanced camera with a fantastic element of depth of field to record these scenes before actually painting them.

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
Edgar Degas: The Rehearsal, c. 1874. Oil on canvas, 58.4 x 83.8 cm. Lent by Culture and Sport Glasgow on behalf of Glasgow City Council. Gifted by Sir William and Lady Constance Burrell to the City of Glasgow, 1944. Image copyright Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums)

He was obsessed with human figure movement and choreography. Degas, however, couldn’t find alliance with his Impressionists friends to share this new passion except for the photographers which eventually led him to photography. There were three photographs he shot of three ballet dancers which showed his interest in lighting effects. There was also a photo of a woman in a bathtub which was the inspiration for the famous bathtub painting.

The exhibit even went so far as including a clip (Serpentine Dance) from the Lumiere brothers and displaying items such as plate cameras which were a novelty during that time. Ann Dumas, curator of the Royal Academy of Art said these films were frequently shown in Montmartre and Degas would have certainly known about them.

Serpentine Dance from the Lumiere brothers, 1899

The fantastic array of sketches included in the show also demonstrated his dedication of studying movement. With photography as his new ally, he pushed boundaries in his art and translated himself in a variety of medium – oil painting, pastels and sculpture.

Dancer (Preparation en dedans), c. 1880-85. Charcoal with stumping on buff paper, 336 x 227 mm. Trinity House, London and New York
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 only sculpture he exhibited during his lifetime, the Little Dancer was a central piece of the show. The way people inspected the Little Dancer in the exhibit, I forgot how much this sculpture had been criticised and called ugly and a monkey. There were a whole lot more of figurative sculptures in the room, and I wonder if the criticism on Little Dancer led him to practice sculpture privately. The exhibit ends with a short clip of Degas captured in film, walking in Paris with a lady.

Film clip of Edgar Degas
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
Edgar Degas: La Danse Grecque (Dancing Ballerinas), 1885-90. Pastel on joined paper laid down on board, 580 x 490 mm. On loan from the Honorable Earle I. Mack Collection
Edgar Degas: Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera ‘Robert le Diable’, 1876. Oil on canvas, 76.6 x 81.3 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Image copyright V&A Images / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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