Degas and Ballet
Degas - Etolie - Picture 1
Early Painting by Degas
Book on Degas-Life-Works
Degas- Ballet- Ballet Master
AS A Sculptor- Dancer of 14 Years- Picture 5
Ballet Dancers Tutt'Art
Two Washing Women
Degas in Pittsburgh
Study of A Dancer
Degas, Impressionism, Ballet.... and Me!
Having decided to write more about what fires and feeds my passions, I decided to write another article about another painter I have admired for a long time. Picking Caravaggio as the first painter to write about took about one nanosecond as he has been my favorite since I was very young. As I wrote about earlier, there are many to pick from, all of whom hold second place BUT if we add ballet and impressionism into the mix, Degas of course, surfaces rather quickly.
It is not my intent to do a detailed bio of his life as I want my articles light and non-threatening to the reader. As many books have been written on Degas, I want to hit the points that interest me and hopefully the reader. It would be beyond the boundaries of an article, this article anyway, to do justice to all of Degas' themes and foci so I will mainly focus on ballet and touch on a few more to perhaps demonstrate a shift in his style and own passions.
Edgar Degas was born on July 19, 1834 in Paris, France. His father Auguste was a banker and his mother, Celestine, was an American born in New Orleans. Both parents had great interests in the arts which they apparently passed on to Edgar. One amusing story about Edgar is one many of us can identify with. Auguste encouraged Edgar's artistic passions but felt he should enter the law profession. His father's 'my way or the highway' ultimatum resulted in Edgar taking the highway, probably one leading to the Louvre. He left home and lived a very bohemian and economically stretched life. Auguste on seeing the determination that Edgar had to follow his true calling - his own passion- resulted in Auguste respecting and ultimately relenting to Edgar's decision, and most importantly, supporting Edgar's wishes.
At 18, showing skill for drawing and painting since a child, Edgar was given permission to 'copy' at the Louvre. He produced some impressive copies of Raphael, Da Vinci and many of the classical paintings. This is an example where Degas was different than most of the impressionists. Impressionists, in general, respected the masters but felt they were totally different. True and not true. Degas used the masters to enhance his foundation to build his own unique talents on. Neither side was right or wrong. They just took different paths to glorify humankind, his relationship to himself, nature and God- through art.
After one year at the Ecole des Beau Arts, Edgar left school to spend three years traveling, painting and studying art in Italy. (Maybe even college partying!) He made detailed copies of the classical painters such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci. This influence can be seen in many of his later works. As I stated earlier, most impressionist painters did not want to be associated with the classical painters. Degas did. When he returned to Paris in 1859, he turned in some of his works to a powerful artistic group known as "The Salon". He received so-so reviews.
Probably in response to the tight control of the Salon, Degas became a member of a group of artists which included Renoir, Monet, Manet and many others of this newer generation. Not a shabby group, indeed. This was around 1868. It was during the ensuing turbulent times - one of many in Frances history, that Degas went to New Orleans.
When he returned, he helped form a group called the "Societe Anonyme des Artistes ( Society of independent Artists - sounds so much better in French). They created this group to be free of the control and tentacles of The Salon. Degas, wanting to be more independent, preferred to describe his own artwork as "realist" as opposed to impressionist. A radical among radicals. I like that.
It is during this period that many of his ballet works were created such as "The Dancing Class", "The Rehearsal" and "Dancers Practicing at the Bar". What can be and is confusing is that many of these titles are used over and over again and are only differentiated by the year they were created. This is because of Degas's obsession (my diagnosis) of revisiting past subjects and paintings. More on this later.
Degas's paintings were not political but they do show the growth of the bourgeoisie, the emergence of a services economy and widespread entrance of women in the workplace. AND God knows, women were the main focus of the majority of Degas's paintings. His paintings of jockey's and one of bankers and business men in New Orleans are exceptions but he preferred the female for the majority of his art works. He used more and more nude female models as his life progressed. Voyeurism, sexual innuendo, impotency, potency, etc. have been at times used to psychologically explain Degas's preoccupation with women, particularly the nudes in unflattering poses. For me, "WHATEVER", is my response. It is all second guessing. Classical painters of the Renaissance often used nudes and dissected cadavers to add realism to the final clothed model. To give realism to the 'outside', it is better to know what is going on underneath. If there were more to his reasons, I'll leave that to 'want-to- be' psychologists and the Artists National Inquirer. At this point, I like and prefer to focus on the finished product and leave the psychological mumbo jumbo to others.
In 1886, at the 8th and final Impressionist exhibition, Degas exhibited 10 paintings of nude women in various poses of bathing. Some praised the paintings while others condemned them saying the women were ugly. Other than ballet dancers and other athletes, most humans are not perfect looking and many are blessed to be able to be normally seen clothed. Here is where I see a great similarity with Caravaggio. Both artists portrayed people and objects (in Caravaggio's paintings) as real... not ideal. I find it interesting in how he portrays the ballet dancer backstage and in rehearsals looking very ordinary and humble as opposed to their majestic form the audience sees during the performance. Again: real.
Degas lived into the 20th century and passed away in 1917 at 83. His final years were affected by his failing eyesight. Not an easy diagnosis for an artist which made him even more difficult and critical as he got older. With this briefest of biographies over, I would like to focus on his paintings using ballet (yes, one of my great passions) as their theme and touch on some of his techniques. I humbly provide my interpretations. I will allow you to yours. This is what the arts are all about!
Degas was criticized for being arrogant. I can identify with that. It is often the way we are treated and raised in life, to have pride in oneself, that is misinterpreted for arrogance. With Degas, it is undoubtedly due to his upbringing. His family, for a long time, spelled their name de Gas. This indicated aristocracy. They were not. They were none the less fairly wealthy and other than Degas's rebellious stage with his father, he did not have to suffer as many artists did and do. This economic freedom allowed him to visit venues such as the ballet. Ballet was considered a refined art form and profession. Operas, even by Wagner, were often derided for not including a sequence of ballet. Think of our "Phantom of the Opera". Degas did suffer from anti-Semitism. In other words, he was not perfect. I, again, will focus on a love that Degas and I had and have in common: the love and appreciation of ballet.
I, also having a science background, am impressed with Degas and his experimentation with his artistry. I feel his experimentation was his desire to add a new dimension to painting - a freshness or new dimension. Thinking out of the proverbial box, so to speak. Some of his techniques were successful, some were not. Well so goes experimentation. A thousand failures are often worth one success. One of his techniques used in his paintings is known as "peinture a l'essence'. Turpentine is added to a chosen medium such as oil which results in a matte finish: chalky looking. This not only resulted in a unique finish but resulted in future decreased yellowing of the painting since little of the oil base is left. Perhaps an unintended result but still a good one.
One technique that resulted in poor results was painting oil colors on paper previously rubbed in oil. He liked the slipperiness but it took him a while to realize that too much oil darkened the paper resulting in a brown fog. Before 1869, the majority of his paintings were oil and then thereafter at least 80% were pastels.
He once took a rejected pen and ink drawing meant for a newspaper and with his typical many work times on an individual piece added a mixture of pastels, ink and watercolors. Another interesting technique was the use of blowing steam from a boiling kettle and to allow the steam to settle on the picture. This made many of his tutus look beautiful. Sometimes he melted the powder into a paste thick enough to retain brush marks. Other times, he mixed water soluble colors in glycerin which he referred to as "pastel-soap". "The Dancers Behind the Flat" (Butterflies- another name) - here pictured- show a mixture of pastels and a powdered, colored steam. He may have added tempera. The picture results in fine detail in the dancers face while the tutu's and flowers are beautifully blended yet retaining a quality of being almost able to "feel" them. I like the "steam-effect" very much.
Needless to say, many of his paintings were ruined by his experiments and some of his surviving works had narrow escapes. There are stories, such as told by Ernest Rouart, of Degas coming across of one of his paintings such as one in his father's collection. He pestered Mr. Rouart until he got permission to take the painting to "touch-up" or improve the painting. Sometimes the painting was never seen again as he destroyed it in the process. this is what happened to Mr. Rouart's painting This is where I feel Degas allowed his artistic OCD to get the better of him. There is a time to leave well enough alone, particularly if someone found enough merit in the painting to have bought it. that is another reason to have left it alone- it was bought, no longer his but he was persuasive and persistent. This is an example where Degas emulated one of his favorite painters, Da Vinci, who was and is well known to be an experimenter. However, Da Vinci was a true scientist in his experimentation and Degas was a scientist doing experimentation based on 'feelings', not scientific basis or protocol. Well, to each their own path.
Degas used many ballerinas as models during his lifetime though he did curtail their usage in his later years probably due to failing eye sight and trying new avenues. He used the then internationally known dancer, Cleodie Merode. She claimed in her autobiography that Degas used her many times but some critics question that claim though I agree with her explanation. She admitted that she rarely was recognizable because he made her "look like all the other dancers". According to her, Degas was not concerned with the details of the face but concerned with the movement. Anyone who is familiar with his paintings would have to agree with this assessment and therefore the veracity of her claim.
Males, of course have little use or focus in his ballet paintings. This is ironic as all parts in ballet were, at one time, played solely by men. I did find some paintings he did of Harlequin and Columbine. Of course he reworked this theme several times. I think some of the Harlequins even looked female though in one, it is definitely is a male. I did not particularly like any of these paintings and did not include an example. One man he does use in several of his paintings are the ballet master, Jules Perrot who was a famous dancer himself in his prime. You can see him in my example with the walking stick. Mr. Perrot and he were admirers and friends with each other so there was and is that added dimension to his reason for including him. Why he did and did not use male dancers in his paintings is the basis for conjecture by some. I do not care. He was interested in the female form, for whatever reason. Period.
It is in Degas's sketches, hundreds of them, that we see where and how his great expertise in portraying the ballet dancer bloomed. He would continually and constantly improve (or try to) and recreate previous poses and works. He would take thin sheets of tracing paper, dampen them, press them on top of the finished painting and be left with an outline he would then take and tinker with until he had a similar, but not identical, painting. Again, he was criticized by some saying he was not being original but he was only trying to improve on his originality... in my opinion.
It is one of the many ironies in Degas's life, or art in general, that more than 1/2 of Degas's surviving paintings use ballet as a theme but in his later years he lamented that he feared he would only be known as the ballet painter. Not a bad tag by my estimation. Even though there are over 1500 sketches and paintings devoted to ballet, Degas can rest assured he will be remembered for than being known as the 'ballet painter'. Much more.
Although some of the dancers such as the dancer in the center of Ballet-Etoile (Star), Picture 1, are represented as beautiful and ethereal. These are the dancers we see (most of the time) on stage: graceful, noble and beautiful. That's fine and dandy. I am more enthralled and identify with the representations of dancers in awkward positions, rearranging their costumes, day-dreaming, etc., which is the ballet I experienced in class. The near perfection we see dancers perform on the stage does not come without a lot of work. Dancers are human, not machines. Perfection is rarely spontaneous. As Degas liked to joke, "No art was ever less spontaneous than mine." He understood that and portrayed it in many of his beautiful paintings.
In some of his semi-finished paintings of a finished dancer, particularly his pastels, he shows the finished dancer but to the side, he shows several variations of an upturned wrist and hand to find "that just right look" for the finished form. It is as if he wanted future generations to know the detail and hard work he put into all of his renditions. We do, certainly I do, and we are all the better enriched because of his fastidiousness.
Degas was often criticized for not finishing some of his paintings. He often blamed his failing eyesight. I think it was just his 'OCD' persona in relationship to his paintings. He would work and rework some of his paintings which sometimes resulted in his paintings looking undone. To rework one of my themes, impressionists painted with what is known as "en plain air", to be more spontaneous. Degas was not. Impressionists focused more on nature and its relationship via light impressions with man. Degas did little landscape. He liked the human form. Often the same "look" in painting, just a different focus. He marched to a different drummer, an accusation I have been given by professors and one I am happy to share with Degas.
Degas was an accomplished sculptor. I only touch on this because his most famous bronze work is called "Dancer of 14 Years"(Picture 5), obviously a ballet theme. His model was an enthusiastic and precocious 14 year old ballet student. She even posed nude for him. He made many sketches of Maria which are reflected in the final bronze piece- almost life-size. It was widely criticized in a positive and negative manner. Some found it exquisite while others found the model 'ugly'. The ugly comment was cruel and uncalled for. The only thing I find a little strange/different is that Degas used real hair and cloth for the tutu on the finished bronze piece.
Degas painted indoors exclusively. Even his horse race pictures, though obviously based on the outdoors, were based on memory and models in his studio. He even suggested to students who copied his works to just look at his paintings for a while then go somewhere and render only what they remember - then they would recreate the essence and what Degas was striving after. That is the essence of Impressionism.
Dancer and the Tambourine
History of Ballet- Amazon
One of Degas' last paintings- "Landscapes"
Water Color Set
Ballet Dancers/ Mirroring Each Other
Writing about Degas, reminded me of the stress I put myself through in writing about him in school and again now. Now, as then, I just went with my feelings and impressions. There are many surviving examples of his writing via letters, sonnets, poems and notebooks. I found these all a bit difficult to interpret and analyze. Again, I gave up using his writings for any collaboration. I found myself trying to interpret, therefore using subjective conjecture. This I would have to layer on, and in my already subjective interpretation of his paintings, would be too many layers of supposition. I will leave interpreting his writings to those with greater literary interest and acumen than I. His personal letters to people were amusing and of interest to his personality, however.
I utilized many, perhaps too many, examples of Degas's ballet works and quite naturally tortured myself over which ones to include and not include. I do a quick critique with each work. It is not a critical review on my part but what I find interesting about them. I feel the viewers and readers of this article and its' examples should be left with their own interpretation. Anyone's opinion is as good and valid as anyone's. (Well.... most of the time.) Let's face it, is that not what painting, ballet and the arts in general are all about? Should be about? Thank God we have artists now and from our past that open are minds and allow us to experience the wonders of not only the arts but life itself.
Other "Artful" articles I have written!
- THE ARTS = A Brightspot Even for the Homeless
The Arts - especially BALLET - is always a bright spot when life is dark and dismal.
- The Day My Passion For Ballet Was Born = IGNITED!
Through all the bleak (but improving!) days I am currently experiencing and when I need an emotional uplift, I think and
- Caravaggio and Me
I wanted to combine a personal story of my favorite painter, Caravaggio, with a background of this superb Renaissance artist for an art history lesson.