Degas’ Dancers Paintings: the Ballerinas at The Paris Opera

Painting the rhythm of the Paris Opera dancers

Why did Edgar Degas paint ballet dancers?

Degas tried to capture movement in his painting. Throughout his long artistic career he never tired of the ballet dancer as subject and challenge. His backstage access to the dance rehearsal rooms at the Paris Opera gave him the opportunity to closely observe and sketch the stylised poses of the ballerinas as they went through their paces.

Degas’ enduring relationship with the Paris Opera shows his obsessive side — he returned again and again. The difficult training routines the dancers went through; their search to discipline their bodies to achieve equilibrium, poise and control mirrored his lifelong artistic effort to translate moment and movement into fixed dynamic image.

Access to the Paris Opera meant that Degas had an open studio where he could study rhythm and attitude as often as he liked.

What else can we identify about the atmosphere of the opera that kept drawing Degas back?

Why Degas kept returning to the opera:

  • An artificial, constructed, artistic environment specialising in illusion and lighting effects offering new possibilities of representation
  • A microsociety where Degas could closely observe the ballerinas’ every mood and gesture
  • A musical spectacle – Degas loved music
  • An environment which confirmed his social status
  • The similarity between the posed sculptural formality of ballet dancing and the classical painting tradition
  • Degas’ character: “once I have a line, I hold onto it, I never let it go”

Degas ballet dancers paintings

Location: 13 Rue Victor Massé, 1859 – 1872/3, point 17

A view of a white painted four storey hotel facade at 13 Rue Victor Massé Montmartre. A wrought iron balcony and cornice runs across the facade on the second floor. The building is now a hotel but used to be Degas’ apartment and studio in the 1860s.
Point 17, 13 Rue Victor Massé, Degas’ apartment and studio in the 1860s.
An OpenStreetMap detail showing the route to point 17, 13 Rue Victor Masse, Edgar Degas lived and worked here from 1859 – 1872/73.
An OpenStreetMap detail showing the route to point 17, 13 Rue Victor Masse, Edgar Degas lived and worked here from 1859 – 1872/73. © OpenStreetMap contributors, the Open Database Licence (ODbL).

The Dance Foyer at the Opera from 1872, in the Orsay Museum Paris, would have been one of the last paintings executed at point 17. It shows an austere classical almost monochromatic setting where the dancers repeat their moves. The atmosphere is serious. Degas chooses an unusual sweeping diagonal perspective.

This is the rehearsal room of the old Paris Opera in Rue Le Peletier which burnt down one year later in 1873. The famous Paris Opera (the Palais Garnier) we see now dates from 1875.

Map of lower Montmartre Pigalle for the self-guided walk which guides you to artists’ studios, paintings and canteens. The walk is around the lower Montmartre - Pigalle area and includes sites associated with Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and the Montmartre jazz scene of the 1920s.
Walk 2, map of lower Montmartre – Pigalle ; route and points of interest of the Montmartre walking tour Montmartre Artists’ Studios © OpenStreetMap contributors, the Open Database Licence (ODbL).

Location: 77 Rue Blanche, 1872/3 – 1876, point 7

In 1872/3 Degas moved from point 17, in Rue Victor Massé to point 7, 77 Rue Blanche. He was to stay here until 1876.

The bright red brass plated doors of 77 Rue Blanche Montmartre. This is one of Degas’ many apartments and studios in Montmartre. The number 77 is prominently displayed on a blue background and a window is framed in some florid decorative carving. A flower box is visible on the window ledge.
Point 7, 77 Rue Blanche. Degas’ apartment and studio, whilst here he helped organise the first Impressionist show in 1874.
An OpenStreetMap detail showing the route to point 7, 77 Rue Blanche Paris 75009. Edgar Degas lived and worked here from 1872/3 – 1876.
An OpenStreetMap detail showing the route to point 7, 77 Rue Blanche. Edgar Degas lived and worked here from 1872/3 – 1876. © OpenStreetMap contributors, the Open Database Licence (ODbL).

Degas helps found the Impressionist movement

It was in this building, point 7, 77 Rue Blanche, that he helped to organise the first Impressionist Exhibition which took place in 1874 in Boulevard de Capucines.

During the 1870s Degas concentrated on the opera ballerinas.

Edmond de Goncourt the writer, essayist and critic called on Degas at this address. De Goncourt was amused to see the sober Degas get so carried away by his enthusiasm for the dancers that he began to attempt to imitate them in the middle of his living room.

Degas was certainly very seriously interested in translating movement in space onto the flat surface of a canvas. He no doubt imitated some of the ballerina’s poses just to see what it felt like to try to hold them. In this case though he was probably playing with de Goncourt and perhaps even angling for some free publicity.

The Dance Class

The Dance Class from about 1873, in the Orsay Museum Paris, is again set in Rue Le Peletier.

A group of ballerinas in tutus and ribbons are strewn around an elderly dance master with a stick. We see the floorboards and a window in the background. Whilst some ballerinas are practising others appear distracted as they scratch or adjust their costumes.
The Dance Class: not everyone is paying attention. (1) © Wikimedia Commons.

Degas has once again set up a diagonal, sweeping frieze-like view. We get an ‘as it happens’ glimpse of the scene as though we have just walked in on an informal visit; there is a lot to take in. We see the dancers gathered around the instructor. He is an elderly gentleman with a large stick. Whilst the baton is nominally to beat out the rhythm of the dance, it is also hefty enough to posses an air of menace; if the girls get it wrong perhaps they will get a prod or even be struck.

Some of the ballerinas appear disinterested in the class and have their own agenda. The one closest to us gives a dirty look from behind her fan to someone on the other side of the room. The girl sitting on the table is stretching her neck and scratching her back at the same time; one is adjusting her costume, another her earring. Degas notes the details.

The opera rats

The ballet dancers often came from working class backgrounds. They were contemptuously called ‘opera rats’ by the bourgeois critics and clientele who went to see them perform. The prejudices of the times are also illustrated by the critical reaction to Degas’ showing of his ‘Little Dancer’ statue at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881.

What we witness in The Dance Class and other Degas depictions of ballet exercises and rehearsal is a punishing and exhausting regime of relentless work.

Given the social theory and preconceptions of the time, this could be aimed at disciplining and curbing the perceived turbulence and excessive energy of the uncultured lower orders of society from which many of the ‘rats’ came.

(See the Bourgeois Men and Working Women page for more on social forces and cultural expectations).

An Infographic timeline which shows where Edgar Degas lived and worked, the dates he lived there and the major paintings to be associated with the addresses and the studios. All of these addresses are in Montmartre and all but one in the Pigalle area of Montmartre.
Edgar Degas’ studios, apartments and major works in the Pigalle area of Montmartre.

Two Dancers on a Stage

Two Dancers on a Stage from 1874 shows us a couple of working class dancers. This painting is in the Courtauld Institute in London. The Courtauld website points out that Degas was interested in physiognomy and that the fashionable physiognomists of the day attempted to link physical appearance to character.

The girls’ features, from the point of view of the ideas — or rather the misogynistic prejudices — of the time, show us unrefined ‘opera rats’ as they were known then.

We see the dancers from an elevated viewpoint. The figures are painted to the right of the picture surface as though just entering or perhaps we the viewers have glanced to the right as their movement catches our attention. The unusual framing is probably adopted from the Japanese print artists who Degas admired and who typically presented figures off-centre.

In the background we see some very loose, smudgy brushwork which appears to be foliage or trees. Freeing colour from form was a feature of Degas’ later work as we will see when we look at the nude bather series.

In a Café aka Absinthe painted at point 7

Another of Degas’ most famous paintings was executed here; please refer to point 4, the Nouvelle Athènes café for a description of In a Café aka Absinthe from 1876. It is a haunting and realistic study of a couple under the influence of alcohol.

Location: 4 Rue Frochot, 1876 – 77, point 14

By 1876 Degas was on the move again, living for a short time to 4 Rue Frochot, point 14 on the map. Because the dates overlap it is unclear as to whether In a Café aka Absinthe was painted here or point 7. I have situated it at point 7.

A view of a white painted four storey hotel facade at 4 Rue Frochot Montmartre. The building is now a hotel but used to be Degas’ apartment and studio in the mid 1870s.
Point 14, 4 Rue Frochot, Degas was here in the mid 1870s.

Also from about 1876 – 77 and so probably to be associated with point 14 is Café Concert at the Ambassadeurs to be seen in Lyon.

How Degas may have Influenced Toulouse-Lautrec

The Café Concert at the Ambassadeurs pastel and monotype places the viewer in the middle of the stalls. Looking towards the players we see the back of ladies hats, top hats and bowler hats together with the head of a double bass from the orchestra pit which rears up. The performers on stage are brilliantly lit, their gaudy stage clothes contrasting with the shadow of audience and musicians.

Toulouse-Lautrec admired Degas

I believe Toulouse-Lautrec picked up on two details of the Degas Café Concert picture. These are:

The head of the double bass which Lautrec features prominently in two of his most celebrated posters; Jane Avril Au Jardin de Paris from 1893 and another poster featuring her, Jane Avril: the Divan Japonais also from 1893.

Toulouse-Lautrec may also have been influenced by the representation of the hovering gas lights in the Degas picture. Lautrec took the idea and updated it — as a series of yellow electric lights — in a more stylised and abbreviated form in his most famous work, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue.

This Café Concert at the Ambassadeurs painting may have been done at point 14 but because Degas only stayed here for about a year it may also have been executed in Rue Lepic where Degas was present from 1877-78/9. I briefly look at the Rue Lepic address in the upper Montmartre walk, point 12.

Degas was certainly very busy between 1876 – 1878 the period between point 14 on the lower Montmartre walk and point 12 on the upper Montmartre walk. He was working on his favourite themes of dancers, café concerts, some portraits and horses.

To get an idea of the quantity and quality of his work, here is a link to an online catalogue which chronologically documents Degas’ works.


All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1)

(1) Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373
 Details of artist on Google Art Project, Edgar Degas - The Ballet Class - Google Art Project, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons