When I was a little girl, I loved the ballet. I took classes when my family’s budget would allow, and when that wasn’t possible, I listened to music from performances and looked at pictures of dancers every chance I got.
Edgar Degas’ renditions of dancers were among my early favorites!
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I didn’t really understand everything that went into them, but I loved looking at his dancers. They were graceful, beautiful, flowy, and strong…but they were also real. He somehow managed to capture both the fantasy of the ballet and the reality of the dancer’s lives.
How he did this is really an interesting story!
Hilaire-Germaine-Edgar Degas was born in 1834 in Paris. His father came from a family of wealthy Italian bankers, and his mother grew up in New Orleans. Degas’ family was wealthy enough to send him to some of the best schools. His father expected him to study law, and he enrolled in law school for a short time. He did not put much effort into his studies there, but he met artist Jean Auguste Domingue Ingres. Ingres would have a profound impact on his life and art.
He studied art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) and spent a lot of his time visiting the Louvre. While there, he would study the works of great masters and practice their techniques.
He traveled and spent time in Italy and New Orleans, where he had family. During this time, Degas continued to study and expand his artistic style. He exhibited some of his works in the juried art shows at the Salon in the late 1860s, but his work received little attention.
In 1873, he returned to Paris, and shortly after his father died. He found out that his brother had amassed huge debts and in order to keep his family from ruin, Degas sold nearly everything he owned, including his house and the art collection he had inherited. By this time, he did not hold the Salon in high regard, so he joined with fellow artists, including Monet, to open an independent art show in 1874.
It was at this show that the Impressionist movement was “born.”
Degas and the Impressionists
Degas had the training and ability to excel in the classical art forms that were so popular in his day, but also wanted to explore different types of art. He did not like being labelled an Impressionist (as it was first used as a derogatory term) and had little regard for the landscape artists in the group.
However, it gave him the freedom to exhibit his work in ways that wouldn’t be available to him otherwise. He wasn’t limited to classical portraiture or creating epic mythological scenes, and he didn’t have restrictions as to how he could exhibit. He soon became very successful and well-known.
Although he didn’t like being called an Impressionist, he was fascinated with capturing scenes from everyday life. One of the subjects that he loved painting was ballet dancers.
In the late 1800s, girls from poor families in Paris would often become ballet dancers. Their mothers would put them in rigorous classes at a very young age (as early as 3 years old). As they progressed through the classes, they would be tested and pushed to become better. This was so that they could become professional dancers and make money for the family.
This seems odd today, since dance classes are often pretty expensive. This wasn’t the case in 1870s Paris, though!
The young students were called “petit rats,” which is used as a term for young dancers today. They trained several days per week in order to be able to supplement their family’s income. Degas strove to capture both their performance and their behind-the-scenes lives in his work, and several of them became his models when they weren’t training.
He got to know them and was eventually allowed backstage and into their classes. Degas would watch their detailed movements and make notes of their instructors’ comments. He loved the play of movement, color, light, and form and sought to portray it in new ways.
Something that set Degas apart from other Impressionists is how he composed his works. Most Impressionists painted en plein air – meaning, outside (at the site of their subject). They wanted to capture it just as it was. Degas, on the other hand, made numerous sketches and notes and then played with the compositions in his studio. He would make wire and wax sculptures that could be molded in different positions and sketches that could be traced. He then experimented with placing them in different positions, both in space and on the page.
Unlike many sculptors, Degas worked in wire, wood, and wax. He loved the malleability of these mediums. If he was not happy with something, he could just rework it into what he wanted. He was actually well known for this – he was constantly redoing his own work! One of his friends is rumored to have chained Dancers Practicing at the Barre to his wall so that Degas couldn’t take it and rework it. He probably didn’t go that far, but he also didn’t let the artist have it back!
Degas’ best known sculpture today is The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, which is now a bronze, fabric, and wood piece portraying little Marie van Goethem. She was a local dancer who posed for him; this sculpture took several hours to complete. Originally, it was made and exhibited in wax, and unfortunately, it was not well-received by critics.
At that time, petit rats were known for being from the lower classes of society. Art critics knew that their lives were difficult, and that sometimes they were taken advantage of by men who hung around backstage. They thought the ballet should be portrayed as fantasy, and seeing a sculpture of a ballerina in a relaxed position didn’t fit that view.
After his death in 1917, his friends and colleagues Mary Cassatt and Bartholome wanted to have his sculptures cast in bronze to preserve them. This was just after World War I ended, and bronze was hard to come by – as was the money to have it done. A wealthy art patron, Mrs. Havemeyer, paid to have 26 sets of his sculptures bronzed and bought the first complete set. She gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it can still be seen today.
Be sure to record Edgar Degas on your Timeline!
Degas was a contemporary of Monet; the two were born and died just a few years apart! He also lived through some major world events, including
- The American Civil War
- The Franco-Prussian War (during which time he was enlisted in the French army, but was released due to poor eyesight)
- Construction of the Eiffel Tower
- Construction of the Statue of Liberty
- Sinking of the Titanic
- World War I
Hands-On Activity: Collage Composition!
Degas did not work in collage, but he did work with tracings, sketches, and small sculptures to figure out the placement for his compositions. He would trace faces, bodies, and objects onto small pieces of paper and then move them around the larger page or canvas. Degas also made wire and wax sculptures that could easily be twisted and moved. He spent many hours doing this, but you can try out his methods more easily with a collage!
To make your collage, pick a subject that means a lot to you. For Degas, it was the dancers that he knew; for you, it might be something different! Gather images, patterns, and colored pieces of paper and fabric that remind you of your subject.
I recommend using either watercolor paper or an inexpensive artist’s canvas for this project. Both are sturdy enough to easily work with, and they can stand up to multi-media art. If you wish, you can color the background with watercolor paints, acrylics, or pastels. Gelattos work really well for this – they’re kind of a combination between pastels and watercolors, and are really easy and fun to work with!
Once your surfaced is prepped, lay out your pieces in different ways. Move things around until you’re happy with the piece; you might want to do this several times, and that’s ok!
When you’re happy with the composition, it’s time to glue them down. You can use either white glue (like Elmer’s) or Mod Podge. (Personally, I like the Mod Podge, but either will work.) Pour some of the adhesive onto a paper plate and use a brush to put a thin coat on the back of each piece. Then, place it where you want it and press it down evenly, so you don’t have air bubbles.
Continue this step for each piece until your collage is complete. Let it dry for at least a day. If you are using Mod Podge, you can brush a thin layer over the finished collage, once it’s dry. This will protect it for a long time!
Download a set of 15 free art visuals in my Degas’ Dancers set!
Degas Lessons at Khan Academy
Degas and the Little Dancer – a wonderful children’s book about Marie, the girl who posed for Degas to create the Little Dancer sculpture!
Share Your Masterpiece!
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Claude Monet (with free art study cards!)