Edgar Degas and the Art of Ballet

Edgar Degas (1834–1917) is frequently mentioned in the same breath as such great Impressionist painters as Cézanne, Monet, and Renoir. But although Degas exhibited with the Impressionists, he considered himself a Realist and strongly rejected the Impressionist label throughout his life. Dancers were his most beloved subjects, particularly young ballet dancers of the Paris Opera, a place he frequented throughout his artistic life. Ballet during Degas’s time was the height of both aspiration and fantasy. The teenage ballet dancers of the Paris Opera were generally poor or working-class girls and were frequently preyed upon by the Opera’s wealthy male patrons. Degas wasn’t the least interested in the tainted glamour of this world; indeed, he was less enthused about the performances themselves than the beauty of the bodily movements of the dancers as they practised in the backstage. He captured the ballerinas at their least attractive moments – scratching, stretching, or simply waiting, but with the brilliant strokes that would forever link his name with ballet dancers.

Edgar Degas, ‘Waiting’, c, 1879-82, pastel on laid paper, 48 x 61 cm. Jointly owned by the Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

This pastel work has a simplicity which has few precedents in Degas’s oeuvre. It is ‘quiet’ painting – much of the space in the painting is devoted to emptiness. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to the two protagonists in the backstage of the Paris Opéra: a young ballet dancer bending down to adjust her shoe, and an older women in street clothes, who may be her chaperone.  There is no eye contact or conversation between the women and the aloofness is accentuated by the black and white contrast of their attire. Degas offers no ready narrative or interpretation of what is going on. But if he merely wanted to evoke the anxiety or exhaustion of ballet performance, he clearly succeeded. The painting is a tour de force in the art of controlled mood expression.

Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917) ‘Cinq danseuses sur scène’, pastel and black chalk on paper
46 x 55 cm. Executed circa 1906-1908. Private collection.

This sketch is part of a series of drawings done late in Degas’s life. Here, he reworked the form shown in his earlier oil paintings. The scene shows a bold diagonal of ballerinas, balanced by the open space of the rehearsal stage.


Frank Langella narrates the life and art of Edgar Degas, focusing particularly on his impressionistic portraits of the Paris Opera dancers.

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