Degas’s dancers and his most famous painting: the ballet class

Edgar Degas | lezione di danza


Degas’s dancers are the subject to which the artist dedicated himself from the 1870s to his death in 1917.
Dancers at work, in rehearsal or at rest were an endless source of inspiration for Edgar Degas who portrayed a remarkable variety of gestures and postures in all his works.

READ ALSO – Impressionist painters

Degas’s dancers

Ballerine Degas | Lezione di danza

Degas, La lezione di danza (The Ballet Class)

Degas’s passion for dancers didn’t correspond to his love for dance; rather it was an interest connected to the long and hard training dancers and choreographers had to do before the stage performance.
For this reason Degas often focused on the representation of the pauses during the lessons or the rehearsals and described pupils’ tired faces.

Edgar Degas regularly went to the Paris Opera, but he was fascinated by the backstage world, in the foyers.
There he could observe what happened daily and there Degas’s dancers were more genuine, while adjusting a ribbon in their hair or stretching.

One of the first painting Degas dedicated to dancers is The Ballet Class (1871-1874), where he depicts the almost bored girls  in front of the inflexible ballet master (he’s the well-known French choreographer Jules Perrot), focusing on those small gestures which give us the impression that we are peeking through the door.
For Degas beauty consists of spontaneous and natural gestures, but his works are not spontaneous and the artist dedicated to his dancers dozens of preparatory sketches.
He took him 3 years and several sketches to finish The Ballet Class and before he was satisfied with the final result.

The works featuring Degas’s dancers are like the dance itself: an art which is seemingly simple and finishes in a short time, but requires weeks of preparation and years of training to shape the body.
Spontaneity and naturalness are the main features of works portraying Degas’s dancers, so they look like photographs taken to capture one of the thousands possible moments of the lesson.
The look of the observer wanders everywhere and you may imagine hundreds of possible stories for each dancer portrayed, but the one who strikes me most is the girl with the red  ribbon in her hair, captured  while cooling off with a fan.


The dancer scratching her back in the painting, in the foreground on the left, is the model who was the subject of the famous sculpture in which Degas immortalised a little 14-year-old dancer, now in the Musée d’Orsay.

The sculpture, presented at the Impressionist exhibition in 1881, was found in Edgar Degas’s studio when he died in 1917, and it seems that the artist refused all offers from potential buyers because he considered the sculpture, as well as the girl, almost like a “daughter”.
The story of this dancer and her connection with Degas can be read in the post I dedicated to Degas’ Dancer.

Edgar Degas | ballerine Degas

READ ALSO – Toulouse-Lautrec’ s works: the most beautiful masterpieces

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