Edgar Degas, active in the 19th Century France and famous for his drawings, paintings, sculptures as well as prints, is one of my favorite artists of all times.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Degas studied Renaissance arts in Italy, dedicated to depicting historical scene. Later he turned to paintings with modern themes as well as portraits. He explored a lot of mediums for his artwork ranging from pencil to tempera and eventually settled down with pastel.
Through frequent study and practice at the live scenes, Degas gained a lot of experience describing the motion of the figures; with the tender colors he used, he achieved most of the time a lively and soft atmosphere. Although often Degas chose an angle behind the figures and only mentioned his physical presence at a distance, the sentiments conveyed through his exquisite technique testified that he was emotionally engaged and his works are calling for empathy from the audience. His paintings reflected not only his ability to capture the beauty of the instant, but also his sympathy for his fellow human beings.
Of Degas’ many works related to dance, my favorite piece of work by Degas is Dance Class at the Opera (1872) as below.
In this painting which shows a daily scene of a dance class, Degas left the geometric center of the canvas basically empty, driving our attention to the people surrounding. The focus should be the ballerina close to the left corner, who is practicing her steps in front of the instructor and is probably going to receive feedback. The sunshine lights up her face, enabling us to observe her facial expressions (although her face does not show strong emotions), and the wall sets her off with a bright and warm yellow. I noticed, however, that her fellow dancers are mostly concentrating on stretching and improving their own skills, few showing interests for her performance, except for the one looking at her from a distance (while standing on her tiptoe). The subtle loneliness of the figure might well be suggesting the isolation among individuals, which is a theme frequently seen in Degas’ works.
Unlike other Impressionists, Degas highly emphasized the importance of drawing, and he believed that colors were only subordinate to the line structures. It is very likely that, because of his preference over drawing, he refused to adopt the conventions to blur the view to acquire the sense of “impression”. Rather, he strived to set comparatively clear contours for the scene in his works. Despite the fact that people recognized him as one of the founders of Impressionism, he preferred to be called a realist. His drawings show a great variety, both in the texture and the materials he applied. In his later years, due to his visual loss, Degas began to use charcoal and chalks in a lot of his drawings. In particular, the two drawings that I found interesting are Head of a Roman Girl (1856) and Two Studies for a Music Hall Singer (1878-80).
The drawing above was done during Degas’ visit to Rome. He might have slightly adjusted his style and we can sense the influence of Italian artists of the Renaissance period. Degas gave the drawing an interesting dynamic by lifting up the girl’s head and twisting her neck to a certain angle, as if she was looking back at something. We can also sense the parallel between this drawing and many paintings by previous Italian artists such as Da Vinci and Raphael—the round eyes, the curvature at the eyebrows, the somewhat chubby cheek, etc. Overall, Degas applied relatively delicate lines to create the smooth outline, and though perhaps unintentionally, he was able to generate the effect similar to chiaroscuro, which in this case brings about internal peacefulness.
These two studies are considered to be “the most absorbed and the most eloquent” singers drawn by Degas, as Jean Sutherland Boggs wrote in her book Drawings by Degas (1966). Truly, we can feel the potential movement of the singers’ bodies. The singer on the left is powerfully lifting up her shoulders, ready to open her arms as her lines come out. Here, Degas also used pastel for the drawing, and the singer on the right has a glow shedding on her. The different costumes, however, might indicate that Degas managed to fit singers in two scenes on one page to achieve a duet. Compared to the previous one, this drawing bears more tension and intensive emotions. Although the lines appear to be sketchy, they reach unison to create a vivid representation of the scene quite well.
The mixture of realism and impressionism makes him a unique artist, and his works have still been inspiring more and more generations.
Links to the examples used in this article are listed here:
Dance Class at the Opera, 1872, Oil
Head of a Roman Girl, 1856, Pencil
Two Studies for Music Hall Singers, 1878-80, Charcoal and pastel
I have also attached four other works by Degas in different mediums below.
The Dancing Class, 1873-75, Oil
Three Studies of a Dancer, 1880, Conte crayon
Two Dancers at Rest, 1897-1901, Charcoal
Two Dancers, 1898/99, Pastel