Edgar Degas was a powerhouse art talent when the Impressionist movement first got underway in France in the mid 18th-century. Always a lone wolf who thought very highly of himself, and who was able to support himself thanks to an affluent family in a way his peers couldn’t, he never described himself as an Impressionist, yet at the same time he would exhibit his paintings in Impressionist group shows. But unlike his contemporaries, who were interested in painting landscapes more than anything else, Degas had a penchant for ballerinas.
It was an interest that didn’t really develop until he was close to forty. Before then he had repainted hundreds, thousands of classical works at the Louvre, where he worked as a copyist. He copied works by the masters, including Raphael, before eventually dismissing the historical painting altogether, calling it dated, and turning his attention to scenes taken from modern life. These included absinthe drinkers, horse racers – and washer women. “Rembrandt painted Susanna at the bath; me? I paint women at the tub.”
It was this interest in the ‘real’ Parisian life that attracted people to his work – though not all were favourable. Soon, he turned his attention to the ballet, which was a slice of modern culture that was perfectly attuned to the kinds of paintings he wanted to produce. Indeed, whilst he was referred to as “the painter of dancing girls,” painting ballerinas was just a pretext for what he really wanted to depict – movement. Degas’ obsession with movement had really taken off a few years earlier when he painted horse racing, but with the ballet there was a bonus – there were pretty dresses.
From the age of 39 onwards, Degas devoted himself to scenes from the ballet, including rehearsals. His breadth of work is astonishing for the way he depicted movement, narration, as well as colour. Using both paints and pastels, Degas created a body of work that has now become synonymous with late 18th-century painting. When we think of Impressionism, is is easy to think of Degas and his ballerinas.
Perhaps just as important as the movement and colour was his focus on the compositions themselves. People were still getting used to photography at the time, and Degas showed all kinds of photographic experimentation with the way he cropped his work. Just like an avant-garde filmmaker of 2015, Degas would crop wildly, defying tradition and convention, all in a bid to make his ballerinas more exciting, more alive, more current, more relevant. And it worked. His paintings are rich in atmosphere, fervency, delicacy, and they capture a moment that, though its time has passed, still feels intoxicating thanks to the brilliance of his artistic hand.