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Essay – Edgar’s Degas Letters

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    In his letters from the United States in 1872-1873, Degas petulantly complained at being cut off from life as he knew it in Paris. He keenly missed the nightly round of opera and theater, and upon his return, at a time when the best of his contemporaries had swung over to open-air painting, he focused his attention on typically Parisian scenes: the theater, both on stage and off, the cafe-concerts, the ballet. Every figure he painted musicians, singers, dancers, spectators he caught from an unusual, a revealing angle, lit up from below in the crude glare of the footlights, or darkly silhouetted against a luminous background.

    Degas made his canvas a screen on which he mirrored all the crisscrossing patterns of artificial lighting that accentuate features and bring out personality. The year 1868 saw his first full-fledged venture into this field: Mademoiselle Fiocre in the Ballet “La Source”. But still held in thrall as he was by the conventions of the studio, his eyes had not yet been opened to the vast possibilities of the entertainment world. Let there be no mistake; the light playing over the three women here is not that of the stage, and in fact anyone ignorant of the picture’s title might well imagine the subject to have been taken from an Oriental tale.

    What Degas has done and the picture-title tells us as much is to draw on selected elements of a period ballet, turning them to account as he saw fit, and eliminating their specifically “theatrical” content. He thus proceeded in much the same way as Watteau, who got his raw material from the barnstorming Italian comedians of his day, only to lift the scenes from their stage context, setting them after his fancy in idyllic parks and gardens. (G. GEFFROY, 1890)

    In the following year, very probably, Degas painted a picture whence all compromise was banished: The Orchestra at the Paris Opera, in which for the first time we see him striking out on a path that was to lead him far. Oddly enough, this picture was meant to be and is a portrait of one of the musicians in the opera orchestra, the bassoonist Deire Dihau, a close friend of Degas. But intent on doing away with the conventional portrait backgrounds of his time, the artist had already shown what he was after in previous portraits: he wanted to paint the model in the natural surroundings of his everyday life.

    What is Mademoiselle Fiocre, if not the portrait of a dancer in the exercise of her profession, just as the Orchestra is a portrait of Dihau playing his bassoon at an actual performance? The drawing of the latter canvas carries accuracy to a point rare even with Degas, while the color-scheme is warm, sustained, perfectly attuned in every detail. But the composition is what really proves Degas’ originality. Not content to show Dihau in the orchestra’s midst, he added a touch that makes the scene entirely convincing: the dancers in the background, above the footlights, cut off at the waist by the upper edge of the canvas.

    We shall find the ancestors of these musicians and dancers in the works of certain Dutch masters. Like theirs, Degas’ interest centered on rendering forms modeled in light. The problem he set himself, however, was somewhat more involved. Instead of figures bathed in daylight, he tackled the intricate plays of artificial light; his musicians are seen in the half-light of the theater, while the footlights glitter on the dancers from below. When in 1872 he reverted to theatrical themes, the stage no longer provided him merely with the setting for a portrait, but became the subject of the picture.

    In both versions of The Ballet from “Robret le Diable” we see the serried heads of the audience, with a few bassoons slanting up above them; filling the upper half of the canvas is the darkness of the stage, peopled with stray gleams of light and the white-robed forms of the nuns condemned to purgatory. In Musicians in the Orchestra, though Dihau the bassoonist is no longer to be found, the originality of the lay-out has grown more striking still.

    In the foreground are the heads of three musicians, who turn their backs to us; above them is the stage, with the ballet dancers brilliantly lit up by the spotlights. Dancers had hitherto figured in Degas’ pictures merely as a part of the background, snipped off at the ankles by the stage railing and at the waist by the upper edge of the canvas so many glowing patches of color, fragmentary, eye-catching forms silhouetted against bright zones of light. (Isabel Stevenson Monro, Kate M. Monro, 1956) But now he brought them forward into prominence.

    In 1872 he made several incursions backstage to the dance foyer of the Paris Opera. And after his return from New Orleans in 1873 he began his methodical study of ballerinas and the dance. He pored over them with the same insight and thoroughness he brought to bear on all his subjects. Not the man to dally with the picturesque side of the ballet, Degas kept pace with the dancers’ ceaseless, daily repeated practice routine, the years of patient, strenuous efforts that lie behind the simplest figures of the dance.

    Faces interested him little; they are more or less interchangeable from picture to picture, overshadowed by the expressive dynamism of arms and legs. Only the ballet master or a dressing woman are occasionally individualized. The angle from which we see them is lavishly varied. Very often he gives us a high, overhead “shot” of the entire stage or rehearsal room, with all the dancers spread out below. In descending perspective, on a slant, the eye looks down on groups of figures skillfully distributed over the bare floorboards, masses alternating with empty spaces.

    A fine example is The Dancing Class (Philadelphia Museum); figures here are so spaced out as to obtain the most satisfying complex of elements in balance. But these high, bird’s-eye views gave way after a time to isolated groups of dancers, seen from close at hand, looming up large in the picture-space. As Degas gradually found himself at home with pastels, his interest strayed away from arabesques and movement towards gleaming, misty color, sprinkled out in full light.

    A section of floorboard, the long, receding line of the practice bar, a decor in the background–these are enough to set the scene. Two or three graceful figures poise a moment as they run through the same movements; but the movements of one are reversed, as though seen in a mirror. Degas’ habit of making tracings probably gave him the idea for such works as these, which reconcile harmony and variety in the simplest possible way. When we get an isolated dancer, all interest is centered on the iridescent interplay of pastel colors on her tulle skirt.

    Under the spell of these effects, Degas worked back over some of his earlier pictures in an effort to get from oil-colors the same low-pitched gleams yielded by pastels. For twenty years or more, free at last of his youthful doubts and misgivings, Degas painted theater and ballet scenes, endlessly varied. Now he looks down on the stage, and the parallel lines of the floorboards run out to the picture-frame. Now he is just beyond the orchestra pit, and faces are lit up from below by the footlights, with cheekbones, noses and foreheads lost in shadow.

    Then again, from the back of a stall, he limns the dark profile of a woman watching the performance, her head outlined against the brightly lit stage, her earrings and necklace sparkling here and there in iridescent shades of pink and green. An observer who lets nothing go by, Degas omits none of the “insignificant” details no one before him had dreamt of painting: the neck of the double bass curving up like a bishop’s crook or a young fern; the figure of eight made by the water sprinkled on the dusty floor of the dancers’ rehearsal room; This is one of the earliest canvases in which Degas takes dancers as his main theme.

    We see them in their rehearsal rooms at the old Paris Opera, then located in the Rue Le Pelletier. Yet to come were the highly original types of lay-out and composition that give his later works their unique flavor, depth and space still being suggested by traditional devices. The doorway and mirror create perspective here just as they do in so many Dutch pictures, while at the same time a vacant chair and a dancer going through her paces on the left tempt the eye to linger in the foreground.

    All the figures take a static not to say stolid pose that gradually loosened up and grew freer as Degas mastered the expression of movement. At the beginning of this period, Degas was still using oil paints. After a while, however, he took to mixing these with turpentine so as to get a thinned-out, mat effect, which often has the look of gouache. In time he gave up oil-painting altogether, preferring pastels. Some of his biographers allege that failing eyesight obliged him to switch from oils to pastels, but this can hardly be taken seriously.

    If a painter’s eyes are giving him trouble, he will be just as hard put to get in the brushstroke he wants, where he wants it, whether he has a pastel crayon in his hand or a brush dipped in oil-colors. Others claim that Degas took up pastels because this medium better sorted with his temperament, that of a born draftsman. But this is just as far-fetched. Oils and brushes have never in the least prevented born draftsmen from expressing themselves, as Van Eyck, Antonello da Messina or Ingres abundantly proves. (Roland John Wiley, 1997).

    What actually happened was that Degas, exceedingly restless and finicky by nature, simply wanted to be free to keep a picture on the stocks as long as he liked to touch it up whenever he felt moved to do so, even after years of neglect, without being hampered by the medium itself. Oil-paints, either still wet and unmanageable or dried out and set were hopelessly inconvenient in this respect, whereas pastels not only allowed him complete freedom, but also gave a mat finish that seems to have been greatly to his liking.

    At the start he handled pastels in much the traditional manner, then little by little began to innovate. Taking up the hatching technique Chardin had used in his later portraits, Degas carried it further, getting a full yield of new color effects by slashing the canvas with long vertical strokes whose various shades stand out in contrast to one another. He also resorted to another technique, one no one before him had used. Keenly interested in etching, and continually probing into the resources of this medium, Degas was led to try his hand at monotypes.

    He went about this in the following way. On a burnished metal plate he drew his motif, either with oil-colors or simply with printer’s ink. Taking a rag, he then spread the ink or paint about, thereby getting effects obtainable in no other way. Or while it was still wet he traced out white lines in the ink with a matchstick. Or he covered the whole plate with a coat of ink, from which he elicited various pallors of white and grey by skillful wipings. Before the ink dried, he applied a moist sheet of paper to the metal plate and then ran the whole thing into an etcher’s press.

    As often as not no more than a single proof came out; hence the name “monotype,” which Degas, as a matter of fact, disapproved of Sometimes; however, two or three clean proofs came through. He usually began with a black or dark brown monotype. In the first phase of operations he was free to concentrate on design and values. Brushing the ink with a rag, he got the velvety effects and transparencies he wanted. Then, running the plate through the press, he took the first or second proof and, once it had dried, used it as the ground for a pastel, coloring it either in part or entirely.

    During this stage of the work, design and values being already obtained, he gave himself up to problems of color. Actually this was but an adaptation of what had been standard practice in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in Italy. At that time a painter customarily began by blocking out his picture in pencil and laying in his shadows; he then covered this over with a thin coat of opaque color. But the procedure Degas worked out has an advantage over the older one. The layer of oil-paint becoming gradually transparent as time goes on, the under drawing finishes by showing through. Degas got round this drawback by using pastels instead of oils. (James Emmons, Francois Fosca, 1954)


    G. GEFFROY, 1890. “E. D. “, L’Art des Deux Mondes, No. 5, Paris, December 20 Isabel Stevenson Monro, Kate M. Monro, 1956. Index to Reproductions of European Paintings: A Guide to Pictures in More Than Three Hundred Books; H. W. Wilson, 1956 James Emmons, Francois Fosca, 1954. Degas; Albert Skira Roland John Wiley, 1997. The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov: Choreographer of the Nutcracker and Swan Lake; Oxford University

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