East City Art Reviews—Degas at the Opéra: An Artist’s Journey

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on August 18, 2020
Edgar Degas, Dancers at the Old Opera House, pastel over monotype on laid paper, 8 9/16” x 6 ¾”, c. 1877. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

One may think that any excuse for an exhibition featuring Degas’ many paintings, drawings and late sculptures of dancers was reason enough for organizing Degas at the Opéra, a collaborative exhibition produced by the Musée d’Orsay, Paris and the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.  However, given its particular emphases, this broadly aimed exhibit will provide viewers with a yet fuller understanding of Degas’ artistic relation to the theater, and in particular to the ballet.  After the long closure of the museum, the exhibit has been extended at the NGA, and is viewable through October 12, 2020 by reservation.  The timed reservations are free, you get in quickly, and the experience feels much the same except for the masks and the reminders about social distancing.  It’s just the ground floor for now, but as an added incentive, there are two beautiful painting exhibits to take in there—the one under review here and another featuring plein-air painting that is certainly worth the trip.

As mentioned, Degas at the Opéra is quite broad in its presentation.  Organized thematically in eight rooms, it addresses the lifelong fascination Degas had for the theater, and especially for the Paris Opéra Ballet which in 2020 celebrates its 350th anniversary.  Established under King Louis XIV, the French ballet was, and is, a patriotic institution.  I do find it very interesting that the ballet paintings, indeed all of Degas’ work representing various aspects of the ballet and the lives of its dancers, date after 1870, the year of the Paris Commune and its terrible aftermath. Although much attached to the old Opéra, after it burned down in 1873 Degas continued to follow the company into its new home as well, exploring the theatre itself with its extensive studios and classrooms.

Although never a musician himself (notwithstanding a short-lived attempt to play the violin), the artist grew up in the presence of performers and was immersed to some degree in the pleasures of music from childhood.  His father, Auguste De Gas, a great lover and patron of music, especially late 17th and 18th century French and Italian opera (e.g. Rameau, Gluck, Cimarosa) held weekly music salons at home from around 1860 to his death in 1874.  And, as Henri Loyrette, general curator of the collaborative exhibit tells us, the artist himself loved to sing bits from this repertoire and perform witty (and often bawdy) Neapolitan songs he learned as a child for his friends.  Loyrette wonders if it was their shared Italian ancestry that resulted in Paul Valéry being the only friend to describe him as “musically minded.”[1]

Edgar Degas, The Ballet from Robert Le Diable, oil on canvas, 26” x 21 3/8,” 1871–1872, Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art. Many mid-nineteenth century operas included ballet intermezzi such as the one Degas captured in this painting.

This musicality, and the artist’s intuitive association of music with movement is traced to his attraction to the dance.  It informed his view of ancient and Renaissance sculpture which he had learned to draw in his classical training at the École des Beaux-Arts, and which he continued to draw during his three-year stay in Italy, much of it at the family home in Naples between 1856-59, and then for decades afterward at the Louvre.[2]  The drawings he made after older art were kept in drawers in his studio, along with hundreds of studies in charcoal and pencil of the live model.  These constituted a vast resource for the artist to which he continually returned and re-used—much like the way that Italian Renaissance artists also worked.  And this is key: Degas worked like an old master himself.  He rejected the idea of painting directly from nature but considered himself a “modernist”.  Like Manet, while he exhibited with the group that came to be known as “Impressionist,” this was primarily because he, like they, wanted to paint reality in a modern style while creating his work in a completely different artistic practice.  As a young man he wanted to be a history painter.  What he became was an artist who managed to find a way to transform what he knew about ancient and Renaissance art into something new and modern, through a continuous practice of careful study and observation, building his compositions in the studio by combining these with imagination and memory.

The transformation of reality through art was his guiding principle, as it is in ballet.  His study of movement and the apparent spontaneity of the gesture in his figures is the analog of the dancer’s performance that masks the years of rigorous training and the constant practice that make it possible.  Walking through this exhibit makes this abundantly clear.  Yes, it features images of performances, but is also includes many images of the interminable classes and rehearsals, the yearly examinations, and all the rest of the difficulty and hard work that make the ineffable beauty of the ballet possible.

Edgar Degas, Dance Examinations, pastel on paper, 24 ½” x 18 5/16”, 1880, Denver Art Museum.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.  Company dancers had to pass formal examinations every year until they reached star (étoile) level.

I first came into contact with the basis of this argument many years ago in lectures at Columbia University by my then professor, Theodore Reff.  It was Reff’s belief, which he also published in various places, that Degas was drawn to the ballet because of his feeling of identity with the dancers who worked so hard and so long to produce something that when performed looked both spontaneous and even easy.  So too, Degas believed that the visual artist must study, must learn how to draw, and to constantly practice these basics in order to make something that is not only beautiful but appears spontaneous.  Reff extended this notion to take in Degas’ other favorite subject—racehorses—which require constant and rigorous training from the time they can walk, but when they are on the course, they run like the wind.  He even suggested that the toilette pictures, especially of women bathing and brushing their hair was akin to this, the final result masking the rituals that produced it.  By including many studies and even a whole portfolio of pencil sketches after the live model, this exhibit seems to underline this dimension of Degas’ working premise.

Edgar Degas, Seated Dancer, charcoal heightened with white chalk, 18 1/8” x 12 3/16”, c. 1879-80, Private collection.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

There are more than a few good examples of this in the exhibit.  A beautiful study of a dancer seated in a chair, her skirt billowing over the back can be related to a painting of female dancers in the studio preparing for a dance class of about the same date.

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, oil on canvas, 14 15/16” x 34 5/8”, c. 1879.  National Gallery of Art, Washington. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.  The exhibit includes pencil studies for the tired dancer at left.

The point here is not that the study appears to be related to the painting in question, but that Degas re-used the image in other works following its appearance in this work.  Another example is a pencil study of a yawning dancer, arms behind her head.  The figure can be found in a painting of dancers rehearsing on stage of the same date, but it is not unique.  In her somewhat problematic catalog essay Leïla Jarbouai traces Degas’ interest in the pose to copies he made of a Mantegna Crucifixion panel at the Louvre, but the important aspect of this is the idea of re-using a study when making a composition, even many years later, mostly from memory. [3]

Edgar Degas, Study of a Dancer, pencil on pale blue paper, 13” x 8 1/16”, 1874. Private Collection. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.


Edgar Degas, The Ballet Rehearsal on Stage, oil on canvas, 25 9/16” x 32 1/16”, 1874. Musée d’Orsay. Copyright RMN-Grand Palais / Photo: Patrice Schmidt. / Art Resource, NY. Photo courtesy of National Gallery of Art.

Degas is also well known for his extensive experimentation with media, and we find much of this experimentation employed in images connected to the theater and the ballet.  His very first monotype, featured in this exhibit, depicts the ballet master Jules Perrot onstage with a dancer.[4]  Degas would often use the monotype as a basis for pastel drawing, of which there are numerous examples in this exhibit.

Edgar Degas, The Ballet Master, monotype (black ink) heightened and corrected with white chalk or wash on laid paper, c. 24” x 33”, executed in collaboration with Vicomte Lepic, c. 1876. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

In a similar vein, but in a separate section of the exhibition, is a large selection of Degas’ fan paintings.  There is quite a literature about fans and their extensive use in the mid to late 19th century in France both as accessories and as wall decorations.  Degas’ use of the format was exclusively formal, although he experimented with supports other than paper, such as silk.  It is also in the fans that we see the most daring asymmetric compositions, and loose handling, in some cases to the point of abstraction.[5]  These and the artist’s use of the frieze format are combined in the exhibit’s fifth room.  The journey culminates in the final room with the very bright and often abstracted forms of Degas’ very late works, in which drawing takes a place behind color and figures melt into their settings.

Edgar Degas, Dancers with Double Basses, pastel, black chalk and ink wash on paper, 14 3/16” x 25 9/16”, c. 1879, c. 1880 or later, private collection.  Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Cover image: Edgar Degas Two Dancers, c. 1880 charcoal and pastel on green paper framed: 67.7 x 83.2 x 3.2 cm (26 5/8 x 32 3/4 x 1 1/4 in.) overall: 48 x 63.5 cm (18 7/8 x 25 in.) David Lachenmann Collection.

Degas at the Opéra, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, West Building, Ground Floor Galleries.  Open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Free, timed passes are required and released every Monday at 10:00 a.m. for the following week. Contact tickets@nga.gov or call (202) 842-6997 between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. with additional questions about the passes. Entrance is on Constitution Avenue at 6th St. NW.

[1] Henri Loyrette, “The Music Circle”, Degas at the Opéra, Exh. Catalogue, Musée d’Orsay/National Gallery of Art, Paris-Washington D.C., 2019.

[2] Degas had a copyist card at the Louvre from 1860 until the end of his life.

[3] Leïla Jarbouai, “The Genetics of Dance Gestures in Degas’ Works,” Exh. Catalogue, Musée d’Orsay/National Gallery of Art, Paris-Washington D.C., 2019.

[4] This is the same master who appears in The Dance Class, begun in 1873, completed in 1875-6, now in the Musée d’Orsay.  The exhibit includes a few pencil studies of the standing teacher leaning on his rhythm stick.

[5] Cf. Marc Gernstein, “Degas’s Fans,” The Art Bulletin, 64, 1, March 1982, pp. 105-118.  Also, Kimberly A. Jones, “The Allure of the Fan,” Exh. Catalogue, Musée d’Orsay/National Gallery of Art, Paris-Washington D.C., 2019.

This article was funded in part by a grant from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation.  Visit their website at www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.com