Edgar Degas is internationally known for his representations of ballerinas, but why did he paint them ?

edgar Degas ballerinas
Copyright Grand Palais

A real Parisian

The famous painter Edgar Degas spent his whole life in Paris. Born into a large bourgeois family in Montmartre, at number 8 rue Saint-Georges, to a banker father and a mother from New Orleans, he first studied at Louis Le Grand high school. After obtaining his baccalaureate, the young Edgar joined the prestigious School of Fine Arts in 1855. Despite frequent trips abroad, Degas remained attached to Paris throughout his life, and more precisely Pigalle where he was born. From his studio at number 19 bis rue Notre-Dame-De-Lorette, he walks to the opera, where he tirelessly sketches the ballerinas who fascinate him so much.

A keen observer of Parisian life

Alternately draftsman, painter, sculptor and photographer, Edgar Degas is a curious artist, a keen observer of Parisian life in the 19th century who, thanks to one of his musician friends, manages to slip into the backstage of the prestigious Paris Opera. What he discovers there does not fail to inspire him: nearly a thousand of his paintings and drawings are devoted to the ballerinas of the Opera. Why dance rather than music ? Because it is a visual art, a work of balance and movement. Moreover, the exposure of the arms and legs of the ballerinas – the tutu being a rather bare outfit in the eyes of the time – made these young dancers a perfect subject for Degas’ pencil strokes.

His painting created scandal

Perhaps also that the physical training required by the dance reminds him of that just as precise and meticulous of the draftsman, who takes care of each of his curves and lines. These dancers, so much admired, have not always been unanimously accepted… Because in the time of Degas, in the 19th century, Art was supposed to transcend reality, to sublimate it, and not to represent it. Also, the sometimes unsightly faces of these little ballerinas, their tired or discouraged airs, appear to be quite rude in the eyes of certain critics. Famous for his canvases, Degas was also a talented sculptor and left a rich collection of sculptures at his death, including dancers of rare realism, which often created scandal like the Little 14-year-old dancer, which Degas presented at the Salon of the Impressionists in 1881 and which the critics considered “vulgar and bestial“. A glaring hypocrisy that we know that the male sex of high society went to the Opera to appreciate the exhibited curves of the dancers, whom he did not hesitate to approach at the end of the performance to bring them their ” protection”.

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