Art History Lab

Degas: Unmasking the Hidden World of Ballet Dancers

Edgar Degas: Portrait of an Artist

The 19th century saw the rise of an art movement that would change the course of art history: Impressionism. Among the influential artists who helped bring Impressionism into the spotlight was Edgar Degas, a French painter renowned for his innovative style and unique approach to capturing the essence of everyday life.

Born as Hilaire Germain Edgar De Gas in 1834 in New Orleans, America, Degas was a key figure in the development of the modernist movement and an artist who pushed the boundaries of traditionalism through his work.

Early Life and Background

Degas’ early years were marked by significant events that would help shape his perspective and influence his art. His father, a banker, was a French aristocrat who had moved to America in 1800 to escape the Revolutionary War.

His mother, on the other hand, was a Creole from New Orleans. Growing up in a multicultural environment, Degas was exposed to various languages and customs, which later informed his artistic output.

Education and Artistic Development

Degas went on to study at the prestigious cole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he was trained under the tutelage of prominent artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Louis Lamothe. He also spent time in Italy, where he was inspired by the work of Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo and Titian.

However, it was his encounter with the Impressionist movement that would solidify his artistic style and philosophy.

Life and Legacy

Degas’ life was full of tumultuous events, which included his father’s death, his gradual loss of eyesight, and World War I. However, despite these challenges, he continued to produce groundbreaking art that would inspire future generations.

He passed away in 1917, leaving a significant legacy that continues to influence contemporary art to this day. It is worth noting that Degas went through a surname change, dropping the “s” in his last name at a certain point in his life.

The Dance Class (1874) By Edgar Degas In Context

The Dance Class, a painting by Degas, is perhaps one of his most popular and iconic works. It was created in 1874 and is an oil painting on canvas that depicts a group of dancers rehearsing in a studio.

The painting is significant in both its form and subject matter, and it offers an excellent example of Degas’ signature style.

Importance and Classification in Impressionism

Degas’ work is often classified as Impressionist, but this classification can be misleading since his style was unique and differed from that of other Impressionist artists. Nevertheless, Degas was a key figure in the Impressionist movement, and his work was instrumental in shaping the movement’s direction.

He was also considered a realist painter, as his work often depicted everyday life with incredible accuracy, making his paintings somewhat of a social commentary.

Background and Significance of The Dance Class Painting

The Dance Class was created during a period in which Degas was primarily focused on painting ballet dancers and their rehearsals. This particular painting is significant because it captured the essence of the dancers’ preparation for a performance, as is reflected in the expressions on their faces and their poses.

The painting is currently held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and it was once owned by the famous baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure.


Edgar Degas was one of the most significant artists of the 19th century, and his work continues to inspire contemporary artists to this day. His contributions to the development of Impressionism and modern art are immeasurable, and his unique style and approach to art have left a lasting impact on the world of painting.

His work, including the famous Dance Class painting, is a testament to his skill and creativity, and it serves as a reminder of the power of art to shape our perception of the world around us. Contextual Analysis: A Brief Socio-Historical Overview

The 19th century was a period of great artistic revolution in Europe, and Paris was at the very heart of this movement.

The Parisian art scene was dominated by the Salon, a state-sponsored exhibition that showcased traditional Academic art, which was characterized by its highly polished execution and strict adherence to established conventions and techniques. The Academy of Fine Arts, which governed the Salon, was the ultimate authority in the art world, and artists rarely questioned its rules and regulations.

Impressionism as a Response to Academic Art

However, in the 1860s, a group of artists began to challenge the Academy’s values and beliefs by embracing a new artistic style that was characterized by a departure from the traditional Academic canons. These Impressionist painters, including the likes of Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas, came together in 1874 to form the Socite Anonyme Cooprative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, which organized independent exhibitions showcasing their work.

Impressionism was a revolutionary movement that sought to capture the essence of the moment, often using en plein air techniques to depict landscapes and everyday life. The Impressionists were characterized by their bold use of color, experimentation with light, and loose brushwork, all of which were in stark contrast to the traditional Academic style.

Impressionism was also defined by its expressiveness and subjectivity, as artists sought to convey their own unique interpretations of the world around them.

The Importance of Impressionism

Impressionism was a defining moment in the history of art, marking a significant shift in the way artists approached their craft. Its legacy is still felt in contemporary art, and its impact on the art world cannot be overstated.

The movement’s importance lies in its innovative approach to art, its challenge to established norms and its progressive beliefs.

Characteristics and Styles of Impressionist Art

Impressionist art is characterized by its focus on capturing the ephemeral qualities of the world around us. This approach was often accomplished through en plein air painting, which allowed artists to capture the shifting light and colors of the natural world in real-time.

Impressionists weren’t interested in creating highly polished and detailed works but rather sought to create an impression or momentary snapshot of the world in vivid, bold colors. The use of color and light was a key characteristic of Impressionism.

Impressionist painters experimented with bold and bright colors, juxtaposing complementary tones to create a sense of vibrancy and movement. They also explored the effects of light on color, focusing on how light can alter perception, and create visual illusions.

Variations Within the Impressionist Movement

While Impressionism was defined by certain common characteristics, there were variations within the movement, as artists developed their individual styles and approaches to painting. For example, Claude Monet’s work tended to focus on landscape paintings that explored the effects of sunlight and water.

Renoir, on the other hand, explored the human figure and relationships between individuals in his works. Degas was interested in capturing the somberness and mundanity of urban life, often depicting ballerinas and bars in Parisian cafes.

Despite the diversity of the artists’ approaches, the Impressionists later unified around their shared beliefs and styles through their exhibitions and continued to attract critical and public interest in their innovative work.


Impressionism was a pivotal moment in the history of art, marking a significant shift in the way artists approached their practice. It offered a fresh perspective on the world, and its emphasis on the fleeting and the momentary made it an art movement that was rooted in the everyday.

The movement too attracted much debate and critique and its influence was felt in subsequent art movements. Impressionism remains one of the most popular art movements to date, serving as a testament to its enduring legacy.

Degas and Dance

One of the most important themes of Edgar Degas’ work was his fascination with the world of dance, and in particular, ballet dancers. Degas was fixated on capturing the movement and elegance of dancers and sought to capture the natural poses and fluidity of their movements.

Degas’ Interest in Ballet and the Ballet World

Degas’ love of ballet was borne out of an interest in the Paris Opra and Palais Garnier. He was a regular attendee of their performances, and he became enamored with the dancers as individuals, as well as with the aesthetic structure of ballet as an art form.

His interest in ballet dancers and their movements prompted him to create some of the most iconic dance paintings in history, which he rendered with great detail and craft. Degas was fascinated by how ballet dancers could achieve what seemed like impossible movements so gracefully and how they always seemed poised and elegant even in the midst of difficult steps.

The Portrayal of Movement and Capturing Natural Poses

One of the most significant features of Degas’ paintings of ballet dancers is his use of composition to create the illusion of movement. Rather than painting static poses, he tried to capture the dynamic and fluid movements of the dancers in his paintings.

He used diagonal lines and disrupted compositions to convey the sense of movement, even in the stillness of the painted image. In this way, he created works that were both realistic and spontaneous, in line with his artistic style.

Degas’ works were also notable for the way in which he depicted ballet dancers in natural poses. Rather than idealizing their movements, he aimed to portray the natural ease with which dancers assumed these positions.

He worked closely with the dancers, visiting rehearsals and sculpting in order to understand the specific movements and stances. Through this approach, he was able to render natural, lifelike poses and gestures.

Degas and Photography

Degas was an avid photographer, and he often used the medium as inspiration for his paintings. Photography of the time was still new and exciting, and Degas was intrigued by the way that it could capture the world in a new and immediate way.

Influence of Photography on Degas’ Artworks

Degas’ use of photography in his artwork had a significant impact on his composition, capturing only a part of the image while suggesting that the remainder of the image could be just as important. He frequently cropped images, composing artworks that suggested a larger narrative, beyond what was shown in the painting.

He also borrowed from photography as an art form in the method he used a spontaneous representation of scenes, cropping and inducing movement into compositions by using photography’s techniques. This would include rain from light exposure while taking the photograph or the sudden and blurred movements that could be captured in low light and pictures of ballerinas.

Use of Photography’s Techniques in Depicting Scenes and Poses

Degas brought the techniques from photography into his art, like his blurring and cropping techniques that were typical techniques used by photographers of the time. Moreover, he used the unique perspective offered by the camera to capture a more candid, spontaneous depiction of life, often focusing on capturing fleeting moments.

Degas used his photographs as a basis for his paintings, both in terms of composition and subject matter. He incorporated the poses of the ballet dancers that he had captured with the camera into his painting, creating works that conveyed the immediacy and naturalness of the movement.


Edgar Degas’ legacy continues to inspire artists to this day, who see in his work a revolutionary approach that challenged the traditions of the time. His interest in ballet and the ballet world and in his approach to it, he was able to capture the fluidity and naturalness of movement.

His work and passion for ballet reflect the sensual mystery and beauty of the dance that can only be found in the art that captures its grace, movement, line, and form in stillness. Furthermore, his incorporation of photography’s techniques enriched his art capturing the spontaneity, naturalness, and a candid depiction of life with a certain unique perspective.

“The Painter of Dancing Girls”: Is There More to the Story? Edgar Degas is often referred to as “The Painter of Dancing Girls,” as he became famous for his portrayal of ballet dancers and the world of ballet.

However, beneath the surface of these beautiful and elegant paintings, there may be a darker side. Speculation has arisen over the years regarding the hidden aspects of ballet dancers’ lives and the intriguing relationships they had with their patrons.

Speculation on the Darker Aspects of Ballet Dancers’ Lives

Ballet dancers, particularly in Degas’ time, were often dependent on their patrons for financial support. In exchange for their patronage, these wealthy individuals had access to the dancers and were known to engage in sexual liaisons with them.

Behind the glamour and grace of the performances, there was an undercurrent of backstage meetings and financial arrangements. Degas’ Portrayal of the Hidden World Behind the Curtain

Degas, with his intimate knowledge of the ballet world, aimed to capture more than just the performances on stage.

He delved into the hidden world behind the curtain, depicting what happened when the curtain closed and the dancers were offstage. His paintings often showed casually posed ballerinas in between performances, engaged in mundane activities such as stretching or adjusting their costumes.

Degas was also known to portray the patrons themselves in some of his works, highlighting the complex dynamics between the dancers and their benefactors. These patrons, known as abonns, were often displayed in a critical light, presented as voyeuristic observers or even predators.

Through his paintings, Degas revealed a darker side of the ballet world that many had not previously considered. Formal Analysis: A Brief Compositional Overview

Degas’ compositions are masterful in their arrangement and capture the essence of ballet.

In many of his works, he focused on the subject matter of ballet dancers, highlighting their grace and elegance. He often depicted well-known dancers of the time, such as Jules Perrot, and incorporated elements that were emblematic of ballet, such as mirrors and musical instruments.

The arrangement of figures in Degas’ compositions was carefully considered. He created visually intriguing layouts, often using diagonal lines and interesting juxtapositions of forms to create a dynamic composition.

While the poses of the dancers were still graceful, they appeared more casual and natural compared to the formalized positions seen on stage.

Use of Color and Brushstrokes

Degas’ use of color in his ballet paintings was notable for its softness and subtlety. He often employed a pastel palette, including soft pinks, whites, blues, and neutrals to create a serene and delicate atmosphere.

These colors perfectly complemented the ethereal nature of the ballet, enhancing the sense of elegance and femininity. In terms of brushwork, Degas’ brushstrokes were expressive and varied, adding texture and movement to his compositions.

He used loose brushstrokes to capture the fleeting nature of the ballet, mirroring the swift and fluid movements of the dancers. The combination of delicate colors and expressive brushwork created a sense of energy and liveliness in his paintings.


Edgar Degas’ exploration of the ballet world goes beyond the surface glamour and elegance. Through his paintings, he delved into the hidden aspects of ballet dancers’ lives and the intriguing dynamics between the dancers and their patrons.

Degas’ compositions showcased his mastery of arrangement, capturing the essence of ballet in his visually striking works. His use of color and brushstrokes added depth and movement, further enhancing the allure of his ballet paintings.

While Degas is often seen as “The Painter of Dancing Girls,” there is undoubtedly more to his artwork than meets the eye, inviting viewers to consider the complexities of the ballet world beyond its superficial beauty. In conclusion, Edgar Degas’ fascination with ballet and the hidden world behind it has led to captivating and thought-provoking artworks.

While he is often referred to as “The Painter of Dancing Girls,” his paintings delve into the complexities and darker aspects of ballet dancers’ lives. Speculation arises regarding the financial arrangements and sexual liaisons between dancers and patrons.

Degas’ compositions masterfully capture the grace and movement of ballet, showcasing his artistic skill in arrangement, color, and brushwork. Through his paintings, he reveals a deeper understanding of the ballet world, challenging the traditional perceptions of beauty and elegance.

Degas’ exploration of this hidden world reminds us that beneath the surface of beauty, there is often a nuanced and complex reality. His art invites us to question our perceptions and look beyond the facade to truly understand the lives of those who bring beauty to the stage.

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