Edgar Degas was a French Impressionist artist famous for his pastel drawings and oil paintings. Especially identified with the subject of dance, more than half of his works depict dancers.
At the beginning of his career, Degas wanted to be a history painter, for which he was well prepared with his rigorous academic training and close study of classical art. He changed course in a few years -- bringing the traditional methods of a history painter to contemporary subject matter, he became a classical painter of modern life. He was a superb draftsman, and particularly in depicting movement.
Although Degas came from a wealthy family, he lost much of his wealth to pay back his brother’s business debts in 1873. It is during this period that he first became reliant on his paintings to financially support himself, and his career took off starting from 1874 when he aligned himself with the Impressionists.
Degas felt disillusioned by the Paris Academic Salons and played a key part in organizing the early Impressionist Exhibitions, a movement subverting the establishment of art. However, he rejected the term ‘Impressionist’ for himself, preferring to be called a realist. He also ridiculed the practice of painting landscapes outdoors as many Impressionists did. His interest lay in painting people moving through modern life.
Degas was drawn to the wings and classrooms of the magnificent Palais Garnier, not just for the opportunity of painting dancers in movement, but also the dark world he found behind closed doors. His main concern has always been depicting the harsh realities of modern life.
While he painted some stage performances, the bulk of his work recorded the hidden side of the glitz and glamour. Relying on his friends to secure backstage passes, Degas kept to himself but saw first hand, the inner workings of the ballet. In that time period, the ballet was bankrolled by rich patrons, mostly men, who were known as abonnés or ‘subscribers.’ These men were allowed access to the backstage area to ‘socialize’ with the ballerinas, who were encouraged to return the affections of these patrons to keep them coming back. There was a large imbalance of power and sex work was rampant in this environment, as most ballerinas came from impoverished backgrounds.
This exploitative arrangement was so necessary to keep the Opera house afloat that dancers who participated in this were even given better roles and dancers who didn’t were fired. Not every ballerina resorted to sex work to gain leading roles, but this was more the exception rather than the norm. This cast a dark reputation on ballerinas. Although the modern audience might view these paintings as innocent dance practices, art depicting ballerinas in that era were actually seen as ‘distasteful’ because of this reputation.
In some paintings, there is a black tuxedoed figure lurking in the background, such as in ‘Dancers of Green and Pink.’
Dancers, Green and Pink
This was Degas’ way to incorporate the looming presence of the abonnés. This history may taint his beautiful paintings of ballerinas but it’s important to consider that Degas strove for realism, like a journalist of the times. He truthfully captured a very specific social milieu of the Palais Garnier in that time period. Popular art in Degas’ time was sentimental and saccharine. Although the subject matter of these paintings seem simple enough, a closer look at the details reveals how Degas cut through the frilly artifice of ballet to depict the hardship these strong, hard working dancers endured.