"A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy." Edgar Degas
Let's take a closer look at Edgar Degas' ballet dancers. It's a large body of work, containing around 1,500 paintings, sketches, pastels, and sculptures. Degas sums them up nicely in the above quote. I cover:
Degas spent most of his life painting dancers, but perhaps it was as a means of studying movement rather than an innate interest in ballet. In his own words:
"People call me the painter of dancing girls. It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes." Edgar Degas
I cannot think of a better demonstration of movement than ballet. The dancers twist, turn, and pivot effortlessly through space. What a wonderfully impossible challenge to capture this on a flat surface. Especially given we artists don't have the benefit of multiple frames in time like in film or even photography. We must create the illusion of movement with a single image.
Degas wasn't the only artist to paint the same or similar subject over and over again. Claude Monet did it with water lilies, the Rouen Cathedral, the Waterloo Bridge. Vincent van Gogh did it with olive trees and sunflowers. Painting the same subject allows you to gain a more intimate understanding of it. The constant subject also allows you to better observe changes in other elements such as color and light, which was Monet's chief concern.
Anyway, back to Degas. Below is Ballet at the Paris Opera. Notice how the dancers' movement is shadowed by the surrounding brushwork. This is an effective technique for reiterating movement if used correctly, but careful not to overdo it. Less is more here.
There are also several implied lines created by the dancers and audience looking around. Implied lines being lines that don't physically exist but are merely implied or suggested. A line of vision is an implied line. We want to look where others are looking. In this case, the lines of vision help direct us through the painting.
Refer to my draw-over below. I've indicated the strokes shadowing key movements and the implied lines. Notice the sweeping movement created by the implied lines first to the right, then back to the left, and finishing at the main dancer who looks back in the midst of a pose.
Dancer With a Bouquet of Flowers captures the dancer in the middle of a movement. Her arms span wide, one leg kicks up, and the other pivots. There's a wonderful sense of balance about it.
Degas didn't try to inject movement into the dancer with energetic brushwork. He didn't need to. Movement is inherent in the dance.
Stage Rehearsal is a busy painting. It feels like a rehearsal. People are moving, dancing, pointing, talking. Again, movement is inherent in this scene, so Degas didn't need to rely on painting techniques to inject movement into the painting.
Deux Danseuses, on the other hand, is a relatively still scene. There's no dancing, swinging, pivoting, instructing, talking. Just two dancers resting and stretching on the bench. In this case, Degas did inject a sense of movement and life using scratchy brushwork and lines.
Degas relied on line to reiterate forms and outline key objects, as opposed to the delicate rendering of light and shadow. The result is an illustrator-like effect. Van Gogh did a similar thing, though he was more overt with his linework.
Below is a great example. Strange use of color though, perhaps due to Degas' failing eyesight in his later years. This painting demonstrates the power of outlining to transform flat planes of color into distinct shapes and forms.
Below is an earlier painting by Degas featuring similar use of outlining. Though this one is more sophisticated and the colors more appealing, to me anyway.
Degas' sketches provide insight into how he thought about and used line, without the added complexity of color. Below are a few, plus some key observations:
- Lines follow the contours of the shapes and forms.
- Line density is used for rendering light and shadow.
- More pressure=darker strokes.
- Less rendered=less focus.
"I am a colorist with line." Edgar Degas
Degas was diverse in his use of color. Sometimes bold and vibrant. Sometimes soft and pastel. Sometimes gray and muted. He never got caught in his own ways.
Unfortunately, his eyesight started failing from around 1880. As you can probably tell from his later work, which although beautiful, features some odd colors. A similar thing happened to Claude Monet. Life can be cruel.
Below is perhaps my favorite Degas painting, Dancer Posing for a Photographer. It's a wonderful play between the dark interior and the moonlit city in the background.
In Ballet Dancer, the dancer's vibrant colors merge with the background. Her dress seems to be the key feature, with the most vibrant reds, oranges, and intricate patterns. Compare this to her understated face, hair, and arm. Degas himself said he was interested in "painting pretty clothes".
Tip: As the artist, you decide what's important.
Ballet Rehearsal on Stage (below) is a grisaille painting, which is a fancy word to describe it's lack of color. It was exhibited at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Some critics considered it a drawing rather than a painting. Refer to artist Giuseppe De Nittis' description of the painting in a letter to a friend:
"I remember a drawing that must have been of a dance rehearsal […] and I can tell you it was extremely beautiful: the muslin costumes were so diaphanous, and the movements so true to life that it has to be seen to be believed; it is just impossible to describe."
Below is one of Degas' later paintings, Dancers at the Barre, done in 1900. The two dancers are depicted with pale blues and grays against a vivid orange background. Usually, we see rich and vivid colors used for the main subject, not the background. Degas flipped the switch here.
The painting is held by The Phillips Collection and was restored in 2007. There's some interesting commentary in this article published on their website.
Degas did a similar thing with Ballet Dancer With Arms Crossed. Vivid reds frame the delicate and understated dancer. Black outlines help distinguish the two areas.
Degas frequently visited the Paris Opera, though he rarely created studies there. He preferred working in his studio from memory or models.
"It is very good to copy what one sees; it is much better to draw what you can't see anymore but is in your memory. It is a transformation in which imagination and memory work together. You only reproduce what struck you; that is to say, the necessary." Edgar Degas via Understanding Art by Lois Fichner-Rathus
Degas' compositions are interesting, unconventional, and break many "rules". Often candid snapshots of active scenes, as if his subjects weren't aware they were being painted. This may have been the influence of photography.
Below is The Dance Lesson. It has unusual dimensions, being much wider than it is tall. This allowed Degas to cover a large area of the room without the ceiling and floor taking up much space in the painting.
The girl sitting hunched over in the bottom left corner is partially cropped out. Theory warns against this, but I find it works in this case. It adds to the candid nature of the scene and ensures this girl is not the key focus. Rather, she's a part of the whole.
As with many of Degas' paintings, instead of having a single dominant focal point, he opts for several lesser points of interest. This gives our eyes a number of different places to jump between.
The painting has a strong sense of depth and perspective. The girls get smaller in the distance, the colors weaker, and the detail softer. The vivid red on the nearest girl is an exclamation point.
Finally, a quick point on simplification. Notice how Degas didn't detail the framed image hanging on the wall. You just get a faint suggestion of some colors and shapes. Though this is just a minor aspect of this painting, it's an important lesson in general. Artists simplify the world; we don't add more detail.
In the appropriately named Waiting (below), there's a pleasant balance between positive and negative space. Positive being the dancer and who is perhaps her mother waiting on the bench. Negative being the surrounding floor and wall. Notice how the relatively small area of contrast, color, and detail is balanced against the larger "quiet" area.
The Dancing Class features a similar balance between positive and negative space. Had Degas used intricate detail for the background and floor, our attention would be diluted.
The black-suited violinist acts as a dark accent and a point of contrast for the delicate and white-dressed dancers. The mirror also adds an interesting dimension to the painting. It reminds me of Édouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which I wrote about in the Manet artist spotlight post.
Here's Manet's painting for reference. Is that a mirror on the right, or is it a double-sided bar? I remember there being some interesting discussion on this in the comments.
Below is Ballet Rehearsal (I can sense Degas was struggling to come up with different names for all these dancer paintings). The architecture, namely the grand windows in the back, provides a foundation of linear perspective. Notice how the lines in the room converge towards the same invisible point on the horizon line. This contrasts against the people in the room who are organic, dancing, living, moving. There is a subtle bridge between the rigid architecture and the dancers—look how the extended arms and legs of a few dancers reiterate the room's perspective lines.
- Keeping the subject consistent allows you to better observe changes in other variables. Degas painted dancers over and over again in his study of movement.
- Movement is implied in some subjects. Think of something pointing, running, dancing. In "still" subjects, you need to rely on suggestive brushwork, line, contours, and color to create the illusion of movement and life.
- Line is a powerful visual element for outlining an object, creating a sense of movement, or reiterating shapes and forms.
- Use studies to gain a more intimate understanding of the subject before embarking on a larger studio piece.
- Composition rules and theory are merely there as a guideline, not a strict rulebook. Feel free to break the rules if it makes sense, as Degas did in many of his paintings.
Thanks for Reading!
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