Edgar Degas was both an avid photographer and a collector of Japanese prints and his The Dance Class (La Classe de Danse) of 1874 shows influences of both. From the 1870s until his death, one of Degas’s favourite subjects was ballerinas at work, in rehearsal or at rest, and he tirelessly explored the theme with many variations in posture and gesture.
Degas regularly went to the Paris opera house, not only as a member of the audience, but also as a visitor backstage and to the dance studio, where he was introduced by a friend who played in the orchestra. (The imaginary scene was set in the rehearsal room of the old Paris Opéra, which had recently burnt down.)
More than the stage performance, it was the training and rehearsals that interested him.
Degas closely observed the most spontaneous, natural, ordinary gestures, the pauses when concentration is relaxed and the body slumps after the exhausting effort and rigour of practising.
In The Dance Class the class is coming to an end – the pupils are stretching, twisting to scratch their backs, adjusting their hair or clothes or just sitting, no longer paying any attention to their demanding teacher, Jules Perrot. You can also see some mothers waiting more or less patiently for the class to end.
There is just one dancer who is still executing a position for the teacher.
In its asymmetrical composition the dancers are seemingly caught off guard in various awkward poses, leaving an expanse of empty floor space in the lower right section of the painting.
The slightly raised viewpoint looking diagonally across the studio emphasises the vanishing perspective of floor boards, which were such an important part of the vignette.
You can see the influence of photography and Japonisme in this painting. The scene (image) appears to be cropped – we know that there is more to the musical instrument on the left and more dancers on the right. It doesn’t appear posed, rather just a scene from a normal day in the life of dancer at rehearsal, and we sense that this is just a snapshot in time.
There are also large areas of similar colour, the floor, the dancers’ tutus, the walls, and the ceilings. Degas has relieved these colours with splashes of red and brown, so that the painting doesn’t lose interest.
As an added touch, you can just see a poster for Rossini’s Gaullaume Tell on the wall next to the mirror which pays tribute to the singer Jean-Baptiste Faure. Faure commissioned the picture and lent it to the 1876 Impressionist exhibition.
As you’ll see from the photo gallery below, Degas introduced the additional elements of photography and Japonisme in his many studies of the movement of dancers.
In my next post I talk about Monet and Renoir painting together at La Grenouillere (the Frog Pond).
This is an excerpt from my e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art, where you will enjoy the history of art from Romanticism through to Abstract Art.