Painting of the Day

6 Mar

The Ballet Class. By Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Oil on canvas, c. 1880. Currently on view at the PMA.

Notes from

In this everyday scene from backstage at the Paris Opéra, a ballet instructor observes two young dancers while a mother sits reading in the foreground. Degas spent a great deal of time in the corridors and rehearsal rooms of the Opéra, where he would have seen mothers like this one managing their young daughters’ careers. Girls began official ballet classes at age seven or eight in hopes of becoming premiere dancers by their late teens.

I had to write an essay on this painting for my Modern Art Class, so below is the essay I wrote:

Check Your Illusions at the Door: Degas Paints The Ballet Class


In Edgar Degas’ The Ballet Class, the dancers on the right side of the painting are not currently under the scrutiny of their teacher. Yet they still practice as if they live in a state of unceasing performance because they are forever performing for the viewer. The artist acts as the playwright and director that creates their narrative, orders their motions, and designs their appearance for the viewer’s appreciation. Degas uses these roles not to create a believable narrative that crafts an illusion of truth into which he tries to immerse the viewer. Instead he seeks to force viewers to recognize that the consummate image is indeed staged and not real. In The Ballet Class he combines the quotidian subject matter of a ballet class in Paris with a style that purposely draws attention to the artifice of the image and makes viewers aware of the fact that the artwork is first and foremost an object.

Degas ironically chooses a performance-focused subject matter and makes every attempt to deemphasize the theatricality of the image he produces with it, instead stressing its mundaneness. Although ballet colloquially symbolizes ethereal beauty, Degas does nothing to express this association, instead underscoring the reality of the life of the ballerina—a life of watchful mothers and exceedingly hard work. The faces of the figures are not individualized or clearly defined. Their anonymity prevents viewers from personally connecting with any of them as characters and makes the painting less narrative and more documentary. This feature estranges them further from the realm of the illusionistic art image. All of the figures have completely neutral facial expressions with no awareness of the fact that they have viewers peering into their world. Each figure is clearly accustomed to what he or she is doing, and what viewers are watching is a typical routine for them. In fact, the figures probably could not care less that they might be painted, making the painting itself seem even less staged.

Degas deliberately shows signs of the time and place in which he painted The Ballet Class as an additional measure for the prevention of it becoming a timeless image that transcends reality, aiding in his goal to assert the nature of the artwork as an object rather than as an image. The smokestacks visible in the background as well as the newspaper that the sitting mother reads in the foreground give historical context to the image and remind us that the painting represents the world at a specific time in history, a world of people that do not see the viewers from other epochs nor care about them. This makes it a place that viewers from any other time period cannot step into and consequently are obliged to acknowledge as unreal.

The ordinary, neutral tone of the painting makes it not truly provocative of strong emotions, which prevents us from absorbing ourselves into the image and forgetting that it is merely oil paint on canvas. When viewers look at this scene of a ballet class, it does not evoke the awe and grandeur of a history painting, nor the majesty of a landscape, nor the quaint sentiment of a genre painting. It simply hovers there on the wall, merely providing an image for viewers to gaze at without any ulterior motives of emotional stirring on the part of the artist. Because it is not emotionally provocative, it lacks the ability to emotionally pull viewers in. Instead it keeps them considering the painting at an intellectual, calculating level.

While Degas’ portrayal of the subject matter brings it closer to the reality of young dancers in nineteenth century Paris, his painterly style serves as a direct indication that while he depicts what occurs in reality, this depiction is not itself realistic. His most effective tool in this mission is his cropping of the image, giving the effect of a photograph taken on a whim. Degas’ blurry, painterly brushstrokes evoke motion and overtly reveal the artist’s hand. In addition, the lack of posed arrangement of the figures creates a lack of central subject in the painting, making it seem more photographic even as the painterly style reinforces the truth that it does not represent reality.

The diagonal line that runs from the lower left corner to the upper right towards the wall separates the dancers on the left from the teacher, mother, and other dancers on the right, creating a kind of stage on which the dancers on the left perform for their audience. But this audience excludes the viewer with the sitting mother in the foreground who blocks off space for viewers to step into the scene. This denies us the invitation of stepping foot into the ballet studio, which therefore stops us from imagining the studio as real since we no longer have the possibility of stepping into it.

Deliberately manipulating the scene in a way that estranges it from real life, Degas lifts the floor up in the picture plane to a quite unrealistic level, highlighting his departure from what he has observed in nature.  The mirror in the left corner presents viewers with a confusing visual problem because it reflects an apparently very close column that is not actually present in front of the mirror. It also reflects only one dancer rather than the three that dance in front of it. This illusion, which is most likely not a technical mistake on the part of Degas, provides a visual pun that paintings do not reflect reality. The lack of meticulous detail causes the painting to lose importance, as if Degas did not consider his artwork as weighty and in need of painstaking articulation as Jacques-Louis David might have felt about Oath of the Horatii.

This does not imply that Degas didn’t care about the painting, however, because he subtly manipulates the image and juxtaposes its realism with a painterly style that sends an intentional message about the inevitable lack of verisimilitude in painting itself. As ballerinas strive to perform a dance that forces them to rebel against the limitations of the human body through their gravity-defying movement, Degas points out that likewise many artists attempt to elude the fact that they work with nothing more than paint and canvas by creating an object that appears as an image, a window into a world that looks so real we could actually walk into it. With a painting that takes away the majesty and romance of a monumental painting and makes no attempt to conceal his presence, Degas has aided in Modernism’s introduction of a new kind of standard for judging and analyzing art, a standard that does not let viewers off the hook on the question of what constitutes art and forces them to consider more than how tangible the object they treat as an image might be.


One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara March 6, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    child molestation….

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