Skip to main content


Ballet Rehearsal,1873

Master of pastel, and an artist that really needs no introduction, Edgar Degas was born July 19 (day before my birthday!!) 1834 in Paris. Degas is interesting in that he started as a very Classical artist that changed direction towards a realist study of modern society with keen powers of observation and attention to color. Technically, Degas deserves particular merit for his experimentation with materials, especially in the way he would prepare his pastels such as combining them with water and steam into a thick paste, and even mixing them with oil paint sometimes. Gracefulness (as well as awkwardness) is a common theme in his work, especially in the numerous works of ballet dancers and women bathers, yet he also depicted people with casual realism, neither enobling them nor making them ugly. He was also a pioneer in making use of the camera as a reference tool for his art.

Above we see ballet dancers in an airy room with light spilling onto the subjects from large windows. Degas makes good use of two-point perspective here. On the far left we see a violinist playing for the students as they warm up. One can almost hear the strings pierce the echoey room. There is no specific subject here, which makes this piece incredibly modern...the dancers getting ready for a vigorous class is all that this work is about, and yet it is so peaceful. Note the subtle purples and greys Degas uses to describe the floor, while the walls range from greens to purplish greys, while our eyes leap to the green foliage outside the far right window. Degas recognized that everyday life can be just as interesting as the noble and Classical.

Degas - Vor dem Spiegel - ca1899
In Front of the Mirror,ca.1899

Degas' incredible hatching and cool skin tones are what make this study captivating. The facial expression seems to be irrelevant, and from looking at much of Degas's work I think that he admired anatomy and not so much people. The female form in his eyes always appears nonchalant and devoid of character, yet still intriguing. According to many of his biographers he wasn't the cheeriest person to hang out with either, and ultimately ended up a blind loner in his last years. But he was an astute observer of people and their surroundings, and the daily activities he captured them in were more interesting to him than who they were.

A Cotton Office in New Orleans,1873

This is a wonderful piece. Once again Degas uses two-point perspective from what appears to be a photograph. Degas heightens the color contrast with warm green walls and a vivid orange floor that is balanced by the blacks of the men's suits and the sparing but effective use of white. Degas takes something so ordinary and compels us to watch. It is the complex arrangement of the figures in this space that makes the painting effective: a strong horizontal of figures that are all focused on the cotton on the table, while curiously the foreground figures look away from this, caught up in their individual activities. Again, this idea of making an activity or profession the subject itself, with the people as objects within the painting is so simple yet so effective. People are most natural when they are doing something, not just "posing".

Degas - Tanzexamen
Ballet Exam, ca. 1850
Another variation of the ballet class using more dramatic color and perspective, giving a sense of presence and space that makes us feel like we are in the room with them. Texture plays a large part in this work...smooth wooden boards of the floor, wispy fabric of the dresses, the music sheet stand with a glint of highlight on the paper,and the mirror reflecting the dancers and the bright afternoon sky outdoors. Had Degas lived another hundred years to make films he would have changed cinema forever, and in some ways his influence was felt anyway. Without drama, his sense of quiet participation in the everyday opens our eyes to the world.

Degas - Die Tanzschule
Ballet School, ca. 1850's
An uncharacteristic warm palette dominates this room, and even still Degas manages to sneak in bits of green wherever he can. This time a single girl performs while the other students watch, and violinist plays...note again two-point perspective that is much more subtle, and with deeper tones of value. Strong horizontals again dominate this work, and strict attention to individual expression breathes life into the room. This is pure poetry. This is Degas.


Popular posts from this blog

More Old Master Drawings

There is nothing in all the world more beautiful or significant of the laws of the universe than the nude human body. Robert Henri Charles Louis Müller , A Standing Female Nude Leaning Against an Arch, ca.1864 Once again I decided to talk about some Old Master drawings and delve into the thinking behind how these drawings may have been created and the knowledge of the artist. In the above drawing by Müller, done in sanguine with white chalk highlights, the figure is drawn from a low view-point, with her body twisting toward her left side while resting on one knee. Note how Müller alternates the bent right leg with the bent left arm to create dynamic contrast. The right arm is also foreshortened and partially in shadow. Expressing power and femininity, this is a study that is Renaissance in spirit, even Mannerist, revealing the female nude as sculptural yet always graceful. Anton Raphael Mengs , Seated male nude viewed from the back, 1755 One of several Academic nu


Nymphs and Satyr, 1873 If there is one artist today that hardly needs an introduction, it would be William-Adolphe Bouguereau , supreme giant of 19th century Academic art. Born on November 30, 1825 in La Rochelle on the southwest of France, his talent would define the era he lived in only to fall into obscurity for decades after his death in 1905 until as recent as the early 1980's, shockingly. Today he has the distinction of being lionized by the Art Renewal Center as one of the greatest artists of all time while at the other end of the spectrum vilified by modernists as artificially perfect and sentimental. In fact it is quite rare to see such polarization over an artist of a calibre like Bouguereau, whose bravura is difficult to equal yet at the same time thematically his work admittedly tends toward women and children, a subject matter that sold well and he had endless patience for. Over the vast array of his oeuvre, some 820 paintings, I have tried to find some of his v

The Genius of Ramon Casas

Open Air Interior, 1892 Born on January 4, 1866 in Barcelona, Ramon Casas i Carbó was a Spanish portrait painter and graphic designer. He was a contemporary of Santiago Rusiñol , both founders of the Spanish art movement modernisme . Where Santiago painted pensive interiors and moody landscapes, Casas focused more on the portrait and figure with a penchant for costume and posture. His palette often consists of more muted tones with vibrant color accents. Casas enjoyed a lengthy and prominent career throughout Europe and South America where he often exhibited in shows with his friend Rusiñol. In Open Air Interior above, Casas encapsulates a quiet moment outdoors during tea time. I love these kind of paintings for their calm visual intensity. The way that man sits in his chair, lost in thought while his wife carefully stirs her tea...this is the kind of mindfulness in the subjects that makes us, the viewer, envision ourselves in this scene. Casas paints the far wall of the house