A Closer Look at Edgar Degas’ Ballet Dancers

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“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:

Edgar Degas, Ballet at the Paris Opera 2, 1877
Edgar Degas, Ballet at the Paris Opera, 1877

A Study of Movement and Life

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.

Edgar Degas, Ballet at the Paris Opera, 1877
Edgar Degas, Ballet at the Paris Opera, 1877

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.

Edgar Degas, Ballet at the Paris Opera, 1877 (Draw Over)

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.

Edgar Degas, Dancer With a Bouquet of Flowers, 1878
Edgar Degas, Dancer With a Bouquet of Flowers, 1878

Stage Rehearsal is a busy painting. It feels like a rehearsal. People are moving, dancing, pointing, and talking. Again, movement is inherent in this scene, so Degas didn’t need to rely on painting techniques to inject movement into the painting.

Edgar Degas, Stage Rehearsal, c.1878-79
Edgar Degas, Stage Rehearsal, c.1878-79

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.

Edgar Degas, Deux Danseuses, 1879
Edgar Degas, Deux Danseuses, 1879

Use of Line to Reiterate Forms and Outline Subjects

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.

Edgar Degas, A Group of Dancers, 1890
Edgar Degas, A Group of Dancers, 1890

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.

Edgar Degas, Pink and Green, 1853
Edgar Degas, Pink and Green, 1853

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.
Edgar Degas, Sketch
Edgar Degas, Sketch
Edgar Degas, Danseuse Debout, c.1877
Edgar Degas, Danseuse debout, c.1877
Edgar Degas, Dancer Resting
Edgar Degas, Dancer Resting

Degas the Colorist

“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.

Edgar Degas, Dancer Posing for a Photographer, 1875
Edgar Degas, Dancer Posing for a Photographer, 1875

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.

Edgar Degas, Ballet Dancer
Edgar Degas, Ballet Dancer

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.”

Edgar Degas, Ballet Rehearsal on Stage, 1874
Edgar Degas, Ballet Rehearsal on Stage, 1874

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.

Edgar Degas, Dancers at the Barre, Early 1880s-c. 1900
Edgar Degas, Dancers at the Barre, Early 1880s-c.1900

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.

Edgar Degas, Ballet Dancer With Arms Crossed
Edgar Degas, Ballet Dancer With Arms Crossed

Dancer Studies and Sketches

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

Edgar Degas, Dancer Stretching at the Bar, c.1877-78
Edgar Degas, Dancer Stretching at the Bar, c.1877-78
Edgar Degas, Sheet with Sketches of Hands and a Ballet Dancer on the Bow, 1885
Edgar Degas, Sheet with Sketches of Hands and a Ballet Dancer on the Bow, 1885
Edgar Degas, Ballet Dancers Rehearsing, c.1877
Edgar Degas, Ballet Dancers Rehearsing, c.1877
Edgar Degas, Seated Dancer Adjusting Her Shoes
Edgar Degas, Seated Dancer Adjusting Her Shoes
Edgar Degas, Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper, 1885
Edgar Degas, Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper, 1885
Edgar Degas, Dancer With a Fan
Edgar Degas, Dancer With a Fan

Compositions

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.

Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, c.1879
Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, c.1879

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.

Edgar Degas, Waiting, c.1880-1882
Edgar Degas, Waiting, c.1880-1882

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.

Edgar Degas, The Dancing Class, 1871
Edgar Degas, The Dancing Class, 1871

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.

Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882
Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882

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.

Edgar Degas, Ballet Rehearsal, 1873
Edgar Degas, Ballet Rehearsal, 1873

Key Takeaways

  • 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.
Edgar Degas, Ballet Dancers
Edgar Degas, Ballet Dancers

Other Resources

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

73 comments on “A Closer Look at Edgar Degas’ Ballet Dancers”

  1. Thanks so much for that. So interesting. Lovely seeing a painting through another’s eyes. And thank you for all the wonderful gifts in your emails. Happy Christmas Dan.

    Reply
    • Noting to say, Encyclopedia of painting ,a grand literature of painting ,you are serving. A lot of a Thanks ……….Vishnu Sharma

      Reply
  2. It’s interesting to note that many of the bright hi-lites in Degas’ paintings were obtained through the use of oil pastels…he was one the first to use these in his paintings.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for this interesting piece on Edgar Degas. I appreciate all your analysis on the paintings. You are a great teacher, Dan. Have a merry Christmas and may 2021 be a happy one.

    Reply
  4. The lighting in Dancer with Bouquet of Flowers (from below) always makes me queasy. Degas knew how to make you stop and truly pay attention to a piece.

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  5. Thank you for sharing this work. I especially appreciate your explanation of movement (with draw over) in Ballet at the Paris Opera.

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  6. Hi Dan, This is my favorite of your postings! You are so accomplished, in your analysis of the great artist’s works..I am in awe of your knowledge.. I was just recently advised, by another advanced artist, that if I wanted to become a better painter, I should concentrate on painting one type of subject, and paint it many times, just as Degas, has done.. Since I have always loved snow scenes, that will be my study..

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  7. Thank you. I loved this study of Degas’ ballet dancers and your insight. Truly fascinating.
    I had to keep going over and over these paintings to glean out the little details you don’t notice on a first cursory look. A great idea for a novice, practicing the same subject but with different line, lighting, colour etc. I learned so much.
    Happy holidays !

    Reply
  8. Thank you for this piece on Degas and reminding me all I once learned about his work while in college. Degas has always been a favorite. His ballet prints hung in our home and in my local ballet studio when I was young. The suggestion of movement in his work always amazes me!

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  9. Wow, Dan. What a gift it has been to scroll through Degas’ paintings with your commentary. It helped me solidify some of the concepts I have been working on, and encouraged me to think in new directions too. Since I began painting, two years ago now, I have different eyes for seeing the world, and especially individual works of art. I was curious when looking at The Ballet at the Paris Opera 1877, to observe that Degas draws our eyes to that big peach colored ribbon on the dancer in the foreground, only to read later that he loved clothes and loved painting them. Then I read your notes that we choose what is important to us and are free to bring attention to whatever that may be. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise.

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  10. I agree that this is my favorite posting of yours! Yes, the remarkable analysis of movement, but also how much it says about you, Dan, and your art appreciation and mentoring abilities.

    Reply
  11. Thank you for this. Degas is one of the greatest artists of all time, period. So your e-mail was a welcome consideration of the ways in which he achieved the freshness and spontaneity which seemed so effortless in his paintings and sketches. It was a wonderful read, so thank you again–and have a wonderful Christmas and 2021!

    Reply
  12. Do you think Degas painted over some of his earlier paintings? I notice what looks like feet under the feet of the dancers on the left side of the stage, in Ballet Rehearsal on Stage, 1874.

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    • Thank you so much for pointing that out! I went back to look and was amazed I didn’t notice it. My take on it: could it be that Degas changed his mind on the angle of where to put the dancers? The scrubbed out feet would have placed the foreground dancers in a more prominent position and would have lead the eye towards the stage on the right and stopping there, rather than into the centre of the painting and then following the dancers from the background to the middle ground and then stopping at the stage on the right.

      Reply
  13. Thanks for a very informative study of a great artist’s work. Like many other fields of art and, even may be science, when one is well established one is allowed to break the rules.

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  14. Happy holidays! I just joined and found this Degas review fantastic! I’ve seen lots of his work in different museums, but you made me realize I need to look closer… thank you, appreciate it

    Reply
  15. Why is their blue lines and arrows when both photos look like? Never seen photo of dancer sitting in a chair in the corner wearing point shoes; she is keeping her shoulders warm and from the elbows are on her lap; across from the spiral staircase; someone looks like a witch near her; they working on Cinderella? 2 evil sisters with evil god mother? Different fairytale story with a witch/evil dancer!! Hope everyone enjoys their pandemic Christmas and happy new year!!!

    Reply
  16. So interesting about The Bar at the folies-bergere. It’s always been explained to me before as a mirror but now I’m seeing it from a fresh perspective and trying to line up the objects to see if a mirror actually makes sense. It changes the whole scenario! Thank you. Still one of my favourite paintings because there is so much story there.

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  17. Dan points out features of Degas’s work that are, at first viewing, obscure, but with his guidance become obvious. We are learning to SEE.

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  18. Thank you very much Dan for putting this all together as well as all the other exposees of this year. Degas is one of my favorite painters. His work is so uplifting in this crazy time and your analysis ads greatly to my understanding and appreciation of art. Wishing you a wonderful Christmas and lots of love and joy in the new year.

    Reply
  19. These are the most breathtaking Degas paintings, that I had not
    seen before. The Chicago Art Institute had an exhibit of Degas
    paintings when I was around age 6 or 7, and was given an opportunity to sketch
    from one of the paintings, which ultimately led to a career in art.

    Thank you so much for sharing these awesome paintings as well as
    your informative comments. I’m anxious to share this with some of my
    artist friends.

    artist friends.

    Reply
  20. Thank you for going thru and explaining some of the works of Degas. I really appreciat you doing this, it helps me look at each piece more thoroughly.

    Marcia J.

    Reply
  21. Thank you for such a wonderful study on Degas, something beautiful in such worrying world wide troubling times. Christmas and new year greetings to you. I do appreciate receiving your interesting
    studies, Thank you again.

    Reply
    • I like her comment. I spent many years studying. I don’t care I love the his work. It is simply amazing and beautiful. I saw the sculpture at the nd and I love his race horses and bathers but the ballerinas are my favorite. I was blessed to see the in by an mn

      Reply
  22. Enjoyed reading the article and saw Degas from his perspective.
    Learning to appreciate more and more and learn more.
    Thank You.

    Reply
  23. So enjoyed this and I am mentally trying to apply it to a picture of a drummer I started and put aside years ago because I did not have enough knowledge to proceed. My picture has a Mars orange underpainting, it has an element of the mystical, certainly has movement. I am wondering if Degas’ ways of emphasizing movement might be related to “sound”. Outdoors in a confined space, I recall hearing the deep sounds that went straight through me! Repeatedly through the years I have wondered how I might convey the sense of sound with paint.

    Reply
  24. I am a novice painter discovering art in my retirement. After all the doom and gloom of 2020 it was wonderful to see this display of art. I have to admit I have tried my hand at one of Degas’s ballet paintings. I look at it now from my bed. So relaxing from my previous painting of Covid molecules 🙄

    Reply
  25. This was very enlightening–I’d never spent that much time understanding how these paintings work. You are agreat teacher. Thanks for sharing this was a great Christmas gift.

    Reply
  26. Amazing post! Such a variety of same subject: creativity indeed.

    YOU made it possible for me to see and also UNDERSTAND each painting.

    Thank you and Merry Christmas!

    Reply
  27. These are some of my favorite posts ever! Thank. You so much for sharing your insight into some of my favorite old masters. I especially enjoyed Sargents because I love watercolor.

    Reply
  28. Opening your email and reading thru it today was a real treat and a Christmas present. Thank you, happy holidays, and a better New Year!

    Reply
  29. A comment on Deux Danseuses. I appreciate learning how he uses scratchy brushstrokes & lines to convey movement. One thing i see that maybe you can comment on Dan. The girls are still for the most part as you say but the girl on the right is at a pose that i would think would be anatomically brief. She’s in a outstretched position kinda like when you touch your toes. Maybe subconsciencly, a viewer’s mind would be anticipating she’s in a rubber band position and soon will be moving to a relaxed position.
    Just a crazy thought.
    Thanks for all the drawings.

    Reply
  30. I am intrigued with pressure: I try to look for its effect all around. In the dances I saw dynamic equilibrium. Different pressure points off set by different balancing points to achieve equilibrium. That is my two cents worth of any.

    Reply
  31. Loved it all! But just looked at latest on Fred Cuming.!! It made me weak in the knees!
    Absolutely unbelievably beautiful, sensitive view of the lovely world around us.!! If I
    Could paint just one like that, I’d die happy! Your a lovely teacher, by the way!! Thank you. P.s. his canvas of flowers in his garden is exquisite! Where does such sensitivity come from?

    Reply
  32. Not an artist but a former ballet dancer. Obviously, I’ve never seen the paintings from this perspective. It was quite fascinating. Thank you for your article. I truly enjoyed it.

    Reply
  33. So in “Ballet at the Paris Opera, 1877”, all the audience is looking off to the right instead of at the stage and dancers. Why do you think that is? Is he just messing with us? Or is it part of a big curve through the audience around to the secondary dancers to finally end up on the main dancer? Wow, that’s control!

    Reply
  34. Degas’ painting titled The Rehearsal at The Frick Madison in Manhattan, its temporary home, is not shown here. In addition to the dancers (including the raised leg of another otherwise outside the picture’s frame), the principal foreground figure is the violinist whose fingers and the bow on the violin are clearly playing a specific note at that moment in time. A strange curiosity on my part wishes a violinist reading this can respond by providing the note he is playing at that point in the composition. Thank you.

    Reply
  35. I don’t understand , you give flowing commentary on all of Degas work but not a peep on Manet’s Bar painting. Its about Degas, i get it. But then why in the Hell insert a Manet painting with no commentary. At best its misleading and at worst its a confusing article to throw in an irrelevant piece of art with no elaboration or context.

    Reply

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