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.
Edgar Degas, Dance Class, 1874
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.
Edgar Degas, photograph, Self portrait with Christine and Yvonne Lerolle, c1895 – 96
The Plum Garden at Kameido Shrine, Hiroshige (I) , Utagawa, Uoya Eikichi, 1857
Utamaro, Midnight, The Hours of the Rat, Mother and Sleepy Child, 1790
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.
Edgar Degas, Dance Class (Ècole de danse), 1873
Edgar Degas, Dancers in pink, 1876
Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal, c. 1873-1878
Edgar Degas, Two Dancers, c. 1878-1880
Edgar Degas, Ballettprobe, 1875
Edgar Degas, On the Stage, 1876-1877
Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal, c. 1873-1878
Edgar Degas, Three dancers in a practice room, 1873
Edgar Degas,Yellow Dancers (In the Wings), 1874-1876
In my next post I talk about Monet and Renoir painting together at La Grenouillere (the Frog Pond).
A major influence on Impressionism was Japanese art prints (Japonisme).
The term Japonisme was coined by the French journalist and art critic Philippe Burty in an article published in 1876 to describe the strong interest for Japanese artworks and decorative items.
After Japanese ports reopened to trade with the West in 1854, shiploads of oriental bric-a brac began pouring into France. In 1862, a Far Eastern curio shop called Le Porte Chinoise opened near the Louvre Museum, attracting artists visiting the gallery. It sold fans, kimonos, lacquered boxes, hanging scrolls, ceramics, bronze statuary and other items.
In 1867, Japan held its first formal arts and crafts exhibition at the Paris Exposition Universelle. The exhibition attracted a great deal of interest and resulted in all things Japanese becoming stylish and fashionable. Shops selling Japanese woodblock prints, kimonos, fans and antiquities popped up in Paris like mushrooms.
In the images below, you’ll see paintings by Edouard Manet and James Tissot, indicating that artists visited the 1867 and later expositions, as well as the shops selling Japanese items.
International Exposition, Paris, 1867
La Monde Illustré, International Exposition, Paris
Japanese Pavilion, Paris International Exposition, 1878
Edouard Manet, View of the 1867 Universal Exposition (unfinished study)
Japanese Screen, Paris International Exhibition, France, 1900
The Japanese Women in the Late Paris International Exhibition, France, 1867
James Tissot, Young Ladies looking at Japanese Objects, 1869
Siegried Bing, who is known as the founder of L’Art Nouveau, began collecting Oriental art and design from the mid 1870s and by the 1880s, after a year long visit to the Orient, he was running no less that three stores in Paris and had become one of the most influential dealers of Japanese art in Europe. In 1890 he organised an exhibition of Japanese woodcuts.
Bing also published a richly illustrated journal, Le Japon Artistique, between 1888 and 1891 which was intended to promote the principles of Japanese design amongst European artists. He argued that the art of the two nations was united by “ a bond of kinship born of the same love of beauty“*. Louis Gonse had already published a comprehensive study of Japanese art in two volumes entitled L’Art Japonais in 1883.
These and other similar publications increased the knowledge and interest in Japanese art.
On the crest of this wave of interest in all things Japanese were woodcut prints by masters of the Ukiyo-e ‘Floating World’ school of printmaking. The subject matter of the Ukiyo-e in 18th and 19th Centuries was drawn from everyday life, it celebrated the non-heroic and was based on the idea that all is transient. These prints were mass-produced as woodcuts and were cheap enough for the average Japanese person (or Parisian) to afford. Three master printmakers from the period were Utamaro, Hiroshige and Hokusai.
Kitagawa Utamaro. Bijin Combing Hair, 1801
Hiroshige, Bamboo Yards, Kyōbashi Bridge c. 1857–58
Suzuki Harunobu, Evening Snow on the Heater
Katsushika Hokusai, Peonies and Canary (Shakuyaku, kanaari) c 1834
Hiroshige, The Plum Garden at Kameido Shrine, 1857
Utagawa Hiroshige, Asakusa Rice Field during the Cock Festival at Otori Shrine, 1857
The key features of Ukiyo-e prints were that they:
had limited depth (flattened picture plane)
used a dark outline
generally had asymmetrical composition
used flat areas of colour (ie, not modulated or varied)
had little or no use of strong contrasts between light and dark (chiaroscuro)
could have unusual viewpoints
often used a diagonal emphasis in composition
focused on everyday subject matter
often includes calligraphy
were identified by the artist’s stamp
had quite large production runs (100+)
Examples of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings and prints.
Many of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists experimented with Japanese techniques in painting and printmaking, with a number of artists emulating the Ukiyo-e style.
For example, Claude Monet painted a number of bridges over ponds in his Waterlily series. He praised the quality of Japanese art that “evokes presence by means of shadow, the whole by means of a fragment“.
Mary Cassatt was particularly interested in print making, often using women and children as her subjects. Edgar Degas reflected many of the compositional styles in his drawings and pastels. Van Gogh was also highly influenced by Japanse design and both Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec are renowned for their large areas of flat colour.
In the painting by Manet below, you can see the Japanese prints and screen in the background. To him, these prints brought proof that you could dispense with perspective and limit yourself to flat colours and lines and still do justice to subject matter – even to subject matter drawn from contemporary life. Manet was amongst a number of the artists of the time who collected Japanese prints and other items for their personal appreciation.
Edouard Manet, Portrait of Emile Zola, 1868.
Vincent van Gogh, Brug in de regen – naar Hiroshige 1887
Claude Monet, The Waterlily Pond, 1900
Edgar Degas, Woman Drying Herself after the Bath, c 1882 – 1885
Mary Cassatt, The Bath, 1891-2
Paul Gauguin, M Loulou, 1890
Toulouse Lautrec, Woman at the Tub (Femme au tub), 1893
Artists such as Toulouse Lautrec saw the value in printmaking and posters not just in terms of composition, but also as a way to create multiple copies of works at a reasonably inexpensive cost.
Like photography, the style of these prints also contributed significantly to the “snapshot” angles and unconventional compositions which would become characteristic of this movement.
Japonisme transformed Impressionist art by demonstrating that simple, transitory, everyday subjects could be presented in appealingly decorative ways. The Impressionists, and Post-Impressionists, admired the use of flat, decorative shapes, bright colours, and asymmetrical compositions which assisted them in exploring new ways of painting and printmaking.
* S Bing, in Salon Annuel des Japonais, Premiere Anee, 1883
This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris, key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.
You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.