From class to stage, the Paris Opera ballet seen by Edgar Degas

From class to stage, the Paris Opera ballet seen by Edgar Degas

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  • The dance class.

    DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

  • The Foyer de la danse at the Opera on rue Le Peletier.

    DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

  • Dancers going up a staircase.

    DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

  • Rehearsal of a ballet on the stage.

    DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

To close

Title: The dance class.

Author : DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 85 - Width 75

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas, circa 1873-76.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 95-024205 / RF1976

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

To close

Title: The Foyer de la danse at the Opera on rue Le Peletier.

Author : DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

Creation date : 1872

Date shown: 1872

Dimensions: Height 35 - Width 46

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 05-511289 / RF1977

The Foyer de la danse at the Opera on rue Le Peletier.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

To close

Title: Dancers going up a staircase.

Author : DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 39 - Width 89

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 02-010142 / RF1979

Dancers going up a staircase.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

To close

Title: Rehearsal of a ballet on the stage.

Author : DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 65 - Width 81

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 96-019039 / RF1978

Rehearsal of a ballet on the stage.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: November 2009

Agrégée in Italian, Doctorate in Contemporary History at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines

Historical context

An essential place in the cultural and social life of good Parisian society, the Opera Theater successively occupied three rooms during the 19th century. A new room was inaugurated on August 19, 1821: it was the Opéra on rue Le Peletier, a temporary theater which was nevertheless active for half a century, until it was destroyed by fire on the night of 28 to October 29, 1873.

Fifteen years earlier, while on his way to the theater on January 14, 1858, Napoleon III miraculously escaped death in an attack prepared by the patriot Felice Orsini to plead the cause of Italian independence. Ironically, the new Opera would not be inaugurated until 1875, five years after the fall of the Empire and two years after the death of Napoleon III, in exile in England.

In the 19th century, the Paris Opera employed 700 people, including artists, decorators, costumers, technicians, etc., of whom almost 200 made up the corps de ballet.

Although the Opera continued to be regarded as the temple of French dance in the second half of the 19th century, it was mainly foreign artists who won the favor of directors and the public. The management of the Opera disdains its breeding ground out of love for the exotic, and the interest that a large part of the public has in the beauty of the dancers rather than in the quality of the ballets does not stimulate a production that is always up to the task. of tradition.

Coming from a family of music lovers, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is a regular at the Opera: he appreciates the different artistic forms that are represented there, but, despite his love for lyrical art, singers and the opera scenes inspire him very few works, while he devotes a cycle of paintings to musicians (see The Opera Orchestra) and to dancers a very large number of works, also varied in their themes. than in the techniques used.

Degas began to take an interest in the world of dance in the 1860s, but it was not until 1874 that he presented for the first time, at the first Impressionist Salon, a work devoted to ballet. During the 1870s and 1880s, Degas represented the dancers of the Opera in a realistic way: contemporaries can recognize certain artists, as well as places. This is the case with the Opéra on rue Le Peletier: a place that Degas had fantasized about long after its destruction, it was frequented by the artist from his youth. Degas's affection for him is such that he brings him to life in many paintings; however, as in the case of the Opéra-Garnier, the painter does not care about the small details of these places, but faithfully recreates their spirit by portraying those who inhabit them.

Besides the dancers, certain ballet masters and dance teachers occupy a central role in some famous paintings representing the lessons and the rehearsals; this is the case of Jules Perrot (1810-1892) and Louis Mérante (1828-1887), friends of the artist.

Perrot began in Lyon, his hometown, before performing in Paris, first at the Théâtre de la Gaîté, then at that of Porte-Saint-Martin and finally at the Opera, where he worked from 1830 to 1835. He then pursued an international career with his partner, the Italian star Carlotta Grisi, to finally reconnect with the Opera in his old age, when he was hired to teach there.

The Parisien Mérante, from a family of dancers of Italian origin, after having danced in Marseille and Milan, made his debut at the Opera in 1848; in 1869 he was appointed first ballet master. An exquisite dancer and mime, he performed male roles in his ballets until an advanced age, but by favoring female dancers he contributed to the decline of male dance (see Degas and the celebration of female dance at the Opera).

Image Analysis

Perfect connoisseur of all the places of the Opera, Degas moves away from the visual conventions that weighed on the theatrical iconography of the time, both in the composition and in the choice of situations.

The dance class is an example. The dancers are gathered around Jules Perrot who, leaning on his stick, gives directions to a dancer. The stick represents the symbolic center of the hall, the authority of the ballet master who transmits his knowledge to the younger generations. Degas reinforces the realism of the scene and the tinge of humor when he places in the foreground on the left a dancer seated without embarrassment on the piano who scratches her back voluptuously, another, standing, who wears a large red flower in her hair and holds a fan in his hand, a small dog, while the watering can, far from being frivolous, serves to wet the ground to prevent the dancers from slipping.

The Foyer de la danse at the Opera on rue Le Peletier, painted a few years earlier, is of a wiser composition. The arcade of the mirror which occupies the central part of the back gives a touch of classicism to the whole. The ballet master here is Louis Mérante: like Perrot, he holds a stick but, younger, he does not need to lean on it and raises his left hand in a hieratic gesture. To his right, the violinist waits for the rehearsal to resume; its desk occupies a place similar to that of Perrot's baton, probably in homage to the musicians of the Opera.

Instead of looking at Mérante, the ballerina who is about to perform her variation is rather oriented towards a colleague in a resting position, and her posture is taken up identically by an enigmatic figure, located outside the foyer, in the embrasure of a door which only lets see a leg and part of the tutu.

Table Dancers walking up a staircase tackles a banal situation in an unprecedented way. This very original format painting is divided into two parts by the central figure of the dancer who reaches the top of the stairs. Instead of using the canvas in its height to represent the ascending movement, Degas chose to develop the scene in its length: the dancers draw an oblique line that runs to the back window on the right; the contrast between the left part of the painting, rather dark, and the right part, light, reinforces it; the discreet difference in painting on the wall draws another oblique; both lead the gaze to the right, which helps to translate the movement.

The Rehearsal of a ballet on the stage, the first painting on dance exhibited by Degas, shows the work of the dancers on the stage, with a strong contrast, fascinating realism, between the graceful attitudes of the ballerinas in action in the background and the inelegant poses of the dancers at rest in the foreground . The monochrome painting creates a lunar atmosphere that is reminiscent of white ballets, symbols of romanticism: Giselle and The sylph (see Marie Taglioni and the height of romantic ballet).

Interpretation

The honorum course of the dancers of the Opera has five levels: quadrille, coryphée, subject, principal dancer and star; only the most talented and dedicated can come out of the corps de ballet and rise to the top of the hierarchy, but sometimes one of them enjoys the support of an influential protector for a career.

Degas does justice to the Foyer de l'Opéra, too often associated with gallant encounters between dancers and subscribers but which we forget that it is also used for dance and pantomime lessons for the first dancers and for rehearsals for the stars.

Degas owes his success as a "painter of dancers" primarily to the subject rather than to the way he approached it. The dancers being the object of the desire for property of the wealthy bourgeois and aristocrats, the paintings which represent them become collector's items and the symbol of a society which enjoys living as in a spectacle. However, if he shares the general enthusiasm aroused by ballet and dancers under the Second Empire and the Third Republic, he does so in an original way: far from being interested in the exteriority and the vanity that charms ballettomaniacs. , it goes to the heart of the dance world.

To learn more about The dance class of Degas, visit our website Panorama of art.

  • dance
  • impressionism
  • Paris Opera
  • ballet

Bibliography

Patrick BADE, Degas: Masterpieces, translated from English by Jacques-François Piquet, Paris, Hazan, 1994. Jill DEVONYAR and Richard KENDALL, Degas and dance, translated from the American by Christine Piot, Paris, Éditions de La Martinière, 2004 Ivor GUEST, The Paris Opera Ballet, Paris, Flammarion, 1976, reedited 2001 Arthur SAINT-LEON, The current state of dance, Lisbon, Typography of the Progresso, 1856 Antoine TERRASSE, All Degas, Paris, Flammarion, 1982, 2 volumes.

To cite this article

Gabriella ASARO, "From the classroom to the stage, the Paris Opera ballet seen by Edgar Degas"


Video: The Ballet Class #17 - An Original Piano Score by Stuart Meyer Based on Degas Painting