Masterful Capture of Movement in The Ballet Class by Edgar Degas

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Edgar Degas played a prominent role in the 19th century Art. Along with paintings, he also contributed to prints, pastel drawings and photography. Degas produced the biggest amount in range of works out of all Impressionists. Loss of eyesight made him go through distinctive style changes, from 1890s onwards, his sight was impaired. During the 1870s to 1880s, Degas was producing artworks in multiple fields, etching, dry point etc. Interestingly enough, Degas wished to go back to the conservatism and formalism in painting, however, ends with art that was so different. Degas was always interested in the figure, the reason being is that he admired great history paintings or paintings about the figure. Through his lifetime, he did lots of classical underpinnings and learning about drawing from the masters. One of the major themes that Degas was always interested about is the ballet dancer. He is fascinated about painting the movement and spontaneously of dancing. One of the major influences is Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge could be considered as a scientist, and he was fascinated with the mechanics of photography. He looked at the way in which the forms engaged, in terms of low bearing weight and how the muscles of the human body moved in space. There is a direct link between Muybridge’s photography and the ballet dancers’ pose in The Ballet Class. Degas’ purpose was not to make a narrative out of the young ballet dancers, but to capture movement, and movement is an impressionist concern. It is about the captured, fleeting moment.

When we first look at the painting, we notice that the colour is quite limited and made up of muted colours. This is because of the lack of lighting and different descriptions of lighting. Dance studios were quite bare, they were usually the interiors of chateaus or houses that have become vacant and were taken over by the theatre and put into use. When you look at the architecture, you can see that it is quite sumptuous even when all furnishings are removed. The dance and poses are the most important, so that the palette colour has to be muted and neutral. The only light source is from the big windows in the rooms and Degas needed to use the mirrors and light through windows to illuminate all of the dancers in the room. The huge amount of white and cream depicted for the dancers and their dress stands out to us. They are impressionistic in that he is using a light palette. With the forms of ballet dancers, we can see that up close, there is a black outline acting as a contour line. The clear divisive drawn line becomes part of the body, with midtones, highlights and soft blurred shadow (oaker coloured) on the inside of the arm, thus giving a sense of volume. The articulation of the form is in fact, a lot more exquisite and there is a greater formal analysis of the gesture. The floor is depicted with thinned paint which contrast to the thickly painted tutu dress. The floor exposes the weave of linen on the canvas. We can see the layer of white that Degas has primed, then he only dusted over the white with paint, giving this incredibly thin layer of paint. Then Degas has drawn charcoal lines on top of the paint. The effect of such a thin layer of paint is to create contrast, but more to do with showing light. We can see on the floor, where there are different shades of paint, some are shadowed and some where the light is so bright. This is a mastery of showing the surface as a reflective surface for the complexity of light in the work. It also reinforces the collapse of space and does not distract the sense of a caught moment with the rest of the dancers.

When we look at the walls of the dance studio, we see the scaffold of charcoal lines and very little paint. The dark coloured frame of the mirror is a charcoal linear area. The background area is depicted with a soft drag of paint, and there are hardly any paint on the brush. Degas used turps to thin down the paint and applied it onto the canvas. Then possibly smeared the paint with a rag, getting a sense of flat surface. The flat walls, flat floor and thin linear details are to do with space and form. Degas does not use traditional perspective and we can see that there is a ratio of figures diminishing in size, and there are lines on the floor that draw our eyes back. Degas is alluding to a perspective, he has depicted the painting to be on a much more dramatic angle, and this is not a mathematical perspective. The flatness of the surfaces and the very flat scraped areas on the floor operates spatially to sit behind, to create a layering beneath the textured paint. Textured and thick paint push forward while flat and thin paint push back. Degas is using his method of painting (thin-downed scraped layering, rubbed with rag and very well drafted lines on top) to create a sense of beneath or behind. Degas is building up different layers within the painting. The tutu dresses are depicted with dry-brushed, glazed short brushstrokes, with bits of thick paint. For example, with this girl, her bow and the edge of her dress is quite thick and impasto and her sleeve is really thickly painted. Some areas Degas has painted with hardly any paint on his brush, such as the girl’s skin. Degas blocks the prime layer of brown with the thin layer of paint and builds with a scaffold of white. When Degas is dealing with the costume under the light source against the background, he has used tiny marks with paint then blurred and blended a darker shadow (grey or darker yellow) and it is always a reflective colour of the colour in the background, which is an Impressionist aspect. However, for Degas, shadows were muddy and dark, which is in contrast to Impressionist ideas. Impressionists’ kept the shadows clean, bright and were reflective complementary colours.

All through the work, the earrings, the bows and the texture of hair is far more impastoed. The thick impasto paint is recording light. The thicker the paint, is the area where he is sculpting in light, where the intensity of light is entering the room through the windows, reflecting off mirrors and bouncing onto particular areas of their forms. The floor contrast to the buttery, thick dabs of paint on the ballet shoes. Degas uses almost an Alla Prima typed way of working for the ribbons and shoes. This is because of their texture, the hair is shiny, silk ribbons are shiny, and saturn ballet shoes are shiny. There are touches of white and pink on the ballet shoes to capture the effect of light on them. We often find areas on the tutu dress where there are thin grazed paint and areas of thick paint where we can see the texture of the brush marks. If we look at the yellow ribbon here, this is one of the most thickly painted areas of the painting. Degas is sculpting with paint to capture the bright shine on the saturn material. Degas is always trying to capture movement. You can see that every ballet dancer is like a cameo, they are all doing different actions. This is why I think Degas has studied them as separate compartments. Every dancer is an impression of what a dance class is, some are tired, some are stretching, and even scratching her back. This is intimate but everyday depictions of movement of practicing in a dance class at the same time. There is no formality in this class. The scaffolding of marks suggest the fact that we are looking at these gentle and quiet movements caught while the dance teacher is lecturing. The fresh, quick and vigorous way of working is to give us a sense of immediate nuances of movement. Degas is using these different ways of smudging, blurring mark making to capture the ‘vibrations’ of movement, so we feel that there is this instant feeling of light, and the everyday movements that these ballet dancers are engaging in. An interesting composition aspect is that Degas has left a void at the lower right area of the painting. This reflects the influence of Japanese prints, which is to create a sense of immediacy. Giving us the feeling of being placed in the dance class with the ballet dancers.

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Degas has always been interested in different media such as painting, printing and pastel. Through Degas’ later years, his eyesight is poorer, which lead to the choice of begin modelling with clay. From 1870, Degas started sculpting with clay or wax of horses to help him with the racecourse works, thus the figures for the ballet dancers works evolved in the same way. Degas was able to feel his way through the sculpture and experimented with different media such as hair ribbons and muslin tutu dresses. Mixed-media sculptures are common today, but the bronze ballet sculpture shocked the public in a way that his most experimental paintings had not. Little Dancer of Fourteen Years is a sculpture made out of wax, and what is remarkable about this is that Degas had no training with sculpting. Degas used rag and wire under structure and he uses a palette knife to ‘butter’ the hot beeswax onto the form. Degas also adds varnish into the beeswax which helps the wax to set and harden and prevents cracking. This is so that Degas can come back and work on it the next day.

One of the interesting aspects of this work is the surface. When we think of traditional Roman or Greek sculptures (such as Paolina Borghese), the surface of the sculptures are well polished and smooth. However, with the Little Dancer, we can see clearly that the surface is very rough. This raise conflict in the public. Some were fascinated by the sculpture because no one has seen anything like this, they were shocked by the mixed-media used in the sculpture. With the real Saturn ribbon, muslin tutu dress, and linen top, it gives the new genre of ‘Mixed-Media Art’. Here we can see that Degas has used a heated palette knife to smooth the wax, which leaves these little cuts on the surface. The top for the Little Dancer is made out of linen and dipped in wax so that it has a waxy surface to it. He has also chiseled into the wax to create texture on the top that the Little Dancer is wearing. Degas has forced the muslin tutu under the wax and applied more wax on top, making all pieces sit together.

These ballet dancers were known as ‘ballet rats’. There was a huge amount of young girls who wanted to become a part of the Paris Theatre and it was prestigious if you were picked as a ballerina. However, the ballet dancers were usually the chorus, the background dancers. There was the Prima Ballerina but Degas never painted any Prima Ballerinas. All his life, he has been making art about these young girls in the background, forming the lines. They were all young, pubescent girls, and very few have developed bodies, they are all very thin and delicate, and these girls put all their faith for places in the ballet. Many of them got injured and had a short life because they were not treated well, they were considered to be easily replaced. The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years was modelled to be Degas’ favourite ballet dancer. Degas became intrigued by her stamina, her grace and he caught her in a moment where she is waiting and her body is in this incredibly beautiful gesture where she is pointing her toe and having her hands back in this classic ballet pose. Degas uses different texture material as accessories to highlight the contrast of materials, showing his fascination for different surfaces.

Degas was interested in showing how light and movement interact with these accessories made with different materials. What shocked the public about this sculpture is the addition of these accessories, it is not sculpturly conventional to put real objects into sculpture. This piece of artwork is also showing modernity and an apocalypse for artists who are looking at expanding their repertoire and giving us a greater knowledge about the modern times we are living in. Similarly to how Manet painted Victorine Meurent for Olympia, a real woman in modern times, just as how Degas wanted to show a ballerina at the time, daringly. Degas was not bound by any rules about sculpture, and it was a part of the bigger idea of experimentation with different materials. Degas knew that this would be difficult for the public, and he deliberately chose to show it in the Impressionist Exhibition to challenge the perception of what working in 3D could be. At the time, artists were already challenging how they paint and print, and Degas chose to challenge the formal rules around what sculpture could be. Sculpture was a genre of art where you have to have mastery of, where you understand the technical nuances of working (such as the Lost Wax technique). Degas challenge the conventional rules by putting ombre-coloured oil paint and pigments into the wax for heating and mixing. When he was pasting it on and using his burning hot palette knife to construct the form, thus the wax is coloured.

Then when it solidified, Degas dry brushed the top with more dark tonality and varnished the sculpture giving us the illusion that it is made of shiny bronze. This was all an illusion to a sculpture that was not traditionally made and playfully dressed the sculpture. The public have always thought about sculpture as cold, and stone-like and is about how the material expressing the beauty of the form, once the sculpture is dressed, it starts to look like you are creating a bridge to the sculpture being breathing, ‘alive’ and realistic. People were horrified that this Little Dancer looks real and the audience are conflicted because of the surface material. Famous critiques wrote that the sculpture looked like ‘mottled disease’, like she was bruised or damaged, the skin is not smooth or polished. We see creased wax on the Little Dancer’s legs, as if she was wearing stockings. Straps across her feet and real satin shoes covered in wax, scab-like skin on the knees, creating nuances of texture. This not only show textural effects but also gives an effect of flickering light. Every lump of wax is causing shadow, and we are getting a greater degree of variation of light being attracted to a very rough and uneven surface. The light is dissipated and the edges where the light hits in the form has this ragged edge. The razed cuts on the legs forms its own shadows. Thus when the sculpture is under light, the Little Dancer sparkles with light, and this is the Impressionist idea of the sensory quality that light does when it shines onto a moving form. Degas decided to make these small wax sculptures of different movements. Degas formed these sculpture by looking at his drawing and Muybridge’s photographs. There are no smoothing, the surface is blobby. The sculptures were always in coloured wax, however, after Degas’ death, the family decided to commission them to bronze. Edgar Degas is known for experimentation of different media. While many other artists are producing pastel drawings and prints, Degas combined both ways of working uniquely. Monotypes are one-off prints which were not as popular as intaligios as it could make multiples. The sale of prints became popular from the 1850s onwards, mainly targeted to people who could not afford paintings but collected art. Degas first came across monotype prints in the 1870s and introduced by the artist Ludovic Lepic and made Degas’ first monotype together. Degas made his prints personally in his studio with different tools he made.

One of the most famously known dark-field monotype of Degas is the Three Ballet Dancers. Monotype is a combination of printing and drawing. Degas would have drawn on a copper plate and is executed on a thin paper, then runs through a press only once, thus leaving the image onto a sheet of paper. If the paper is made of cotton then the fibres of the paper need to soften up to accept the ink better by damping the paper. I believe that one of the fascinations for Degas is the wonderment of how it would look. A dark field monotype is when Degas would lay a layer of black ink on the copper plate using a dauber, which is a piece of felt that is rolled and tied. Then Degas would draw on the layer of black ink by removing the ink. In the dark field monotypes, we see the image sort of emerge out of the darkness. Degas who is always interested in using materials in unconventional ways, have all sorts of different gadgets to help him make his monotypes. When removing the ink, Degas would have to be innovative and use all sorts of things in his studio. Such as removing with his own hands, or a piece of fabric in order to get texture as Degas was interested in the different surface textures, or a sponge and even the back of a brush. This area of the floor where Degas has used an old course hog hair brush that has stiffened and directionally flicked and removed the paint with a feathery light mark, giving us the impression of the grains of the floor. The dauber removes large areas and creates this intense bright clean element of light.

Degas loved the texture of the paper he used. Some were printed on cream paper while others were printed on brown paper. The brown paper seem to suggest night time or elements of greater degree of darkness or mystery so when he removes the ink, the monotype is left with this incredible glow of white appearing. If it was on white paper, we would have this intense illumination of artificial light. The light is on the legs, and on the underarms of the dances, the rest of the work disappears with softer tones of lighting. This is because old theatre has their light on the edge of the stage, looking up from the bottom. The edge of the dress of the ballet dancers is illuminated from below. The light is shot onto the pale faces and limbs. I believe to Degas, it is a process that is important. He is crazy for the sense of endlessness and the unlimited possibilities of an image being created. It is also the spontaneity that he could change the image right up to the point when it is about to go in the press. Degas has to work within 10 mins otherwise the paint will dry. Degas has thinned down the paint and added oil to it so it would dry quickly. As the plate is slick and ink is viscous, Degas can move the ink in a gestural and freely way and provided him with a new way of working, a looser way. He has been trained in an Ingres-styled, precise way of working and the monotype changed his art making forever.

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