Dancers Practicing at the Barre by Edgar Degas
Painting Analysis of “Dancers Practicing at the Barre” by Edgar Degas
In this paper, we intend to write a comprehensive analysis of “Dancers Practicing at the Barre” by Edgar Degas. We will divide this work into several parts. In the first one or the introduction, we will discuss the painting on its historical terms. We will introduce a brief biography of the painter, discuss his influences and the historical time he lived in. In the second part or the discussion, we shall discuss the painting itself. Its style; composition; line; shape; color, and texture. In the same way, we intend to discuss the painting’s materials; its volume and the value of realism or abstraction the painting has. In the same way, we shall conclude our essay by contrasting the discussed painting with other adjacent paintings in the gallery.
Edgar Degas’ Brief Biography. Degas was born in Paris, France in the year of 1834. He was the oldest child in a large family. His father was a mediocre sculptor who came from a wealthy family of Italian bankers. It was his father who saw young Degas’ potential abilities and decided that the child should start to paint at a really young age. Degas entered in the École des Beaux-Arts, and started to paint under the teachings of Lamonth, and progressed under his teachings. Lamothe was a disciple of Ingres and taught them using the Ingres’ style, a style who drew heavily on the drawing (Gombrich 526). Degas was a cultured man and tended to attend to the Louvre Museum to get in touch with the painting masters, and even copy their work. In the same way, if we see his first paintings and self-portraits, we could even see a glimpse of Rembrandt’s intense gaze style on them.
Degas’ Influences. We have said that Jacques-Louis David was one of the first influences in Degas’ work. However, with time David’s neoclassical style became a hurdle for Degas, and he decided to leave the academy and study laws. It was not after Degas met Ingres and fascinated with the painter’s work that he returned to the painting. One of the biggest influences on Degas was Ingres’ drawing style, a painting style that relied heavily on drawing. In the same way, Degas has been considered an impressionist by the art world, but he did never focused on the line and stroke style that impressionists used to depict light, instead he focused on the drawing.
Historical Time. The invention of the photographic camera changed the way people saw the world. People who would have otherwise posed for an artist, now could have a portrait made in less time, and at a cheaper price. In the same way, pictures depicted reality with complete realism. That made painters wonder if they should keep on depicting subjects in a naturalist way, or advance to something different. Degas, along with other groups of painters, grew interested in the effects of light on the people and the objects, and instead of depicting the subjects, they started to paint the light as they perceived it. Impressionists, a term that referred to the sketch-like appearance of their paintings (Russo et al. 3). Impressionists depicted scenes of the everyday life, and instead of painting in studios, like the academic and neoclassical painters, impressionists favored the outdoors painting as a way to capture light. Another important influence of the impressionist painters lies on the Japanese etchings and wooden paintings. (Gombrich 524). Degas was one of the organizers of the first impressionist exhibitions, but remained independent of the impressionist circle, like Manet. In the same way, Degas reclusive character made that he rarely relied on outdoors painting, focusing on his on studio work.
Painting’s Style. Degas is considered an impressionist painter, yet he breaks the impressionist tradition if something like that exists. Degas felt passion for the design and drawing, and instead of drawing nature, and painting light, he aimed to paint the space and the forms. However, despite Degas exhibited his work alongside the impressionists’, his painters were much more realistic, something that set him apart from the main idea of impressionism. In this way, using Degas as a model, we could do a critic to the impressionists, and they only dwelled on textures, and colors of the shadows. Unlike Degas, most impressionists turned to the eye, instead of turning to the brain. However, in Dancers Practicing at the Barre, Degas, like the expressionists, stripped the painting of any ideals, turning a poetic image into an everyday subject. Instead of enthroning the ballerinas, he humanized them. (Smithsonian Magazine)
The composition of the Painting. Paintings are usually read from the left to the right but, in this case, it is the opposite. The yellow ribbon in one of the ballerina’s dress is the first element that draws our attention. After seeing it, our eye goes to the second ballerina, and to the watering can at the left. The painting was made with oil paint on a canvas, in a square shape. In the same way, the painting respects the golden proportion, as the ribbon is in tune with the golden proportions. The painting also gives us the illusion of being a spectator of the ballerinas training, instead of positioning us outside the painting. In the same way, the lines on the floor give the painting an illusion of movement. Also, the painting is divided into two halves, which is a device used by Degas to help the eye rest, and separating the figures from the background. It is said that Degas retraced his figures and experimented with different backgrounds before putting them on the canvas.
Line. To Degas, drawing is one of the most important parts of the drawings. In this painting, almost the entire painting is covered by the paint strokes, nevertheless it allows the drawing to surface once in a while. We can spot lines in one of the ballerina’s arm, the lines on the floor and in the bar the dancers are using. The usage of drawing and lines is what distinguished Degas from his contemporaries, who used the textures and the strokes more than they used lines.
Shape. If, by shape, we are referring to the way the lines are placed and what the painting suggests. We can say that this painting refers to the inner and private life of a ballerina. It is not showing the ballerinas on a stage, instead it shows them in one of their most intimate moments, their practice. In the same way, we see that the lines in the painting convey the message of the ballerinas being the centerpiece of the painting. In the same way, the simple background enhances the idea of what we have just mentioned.
Color. Degas uses warm colors in this painting, and we cannot spot cold colors. The only cold color we can see is the color of the dress on the second ballerina, which makes that after leaving the yellow ribbon, the eye goes to that dress. In the same way, Degas uses warm colors to draw the attention to the parts he wants to be highlighted and to avoid some parts of the painting, such as the pinkish ballerina shoes of getting lost in the background. The yellow background is meant to contrast with the brown floor, thus, creating a separation that divides the painting into two halves.
Texture. The background of the painting is comprised of short strokes; the ochre highlights in the background are faster strokes with a thick and richer texture. In the same way, we can see the way he painted, as he does not hide the brush strokes. In the floor we see a more diluted paint with less texture, it is meant to cover more space and give the illusion of a clean floor. When seeing the ballerinas, we see that the dress has a rich texture, and he tries to do a sfumato effect to recreate the lace in the dress. Upon closer attention, we realized that one of the dancers has a red earring, that does not distract the attention, but is there.
Materials. The painting was done using oil paint on a canvas
Volume. In this painting, we can see that Degas is more interested in the way figures perform in the space, and the space they occupy instead of the effects of the light. Also, the figures have many dimensions and are not plain. They are well-seated in the space, rather than be floating like many impressionist painters, who were more interested in capturing the light, instead of giving dimension to their paintings
The value of Abstraction/Realism. Degas was interested in the volume, space, and solidness of his figures. Instead of seeing ethereal figures, Degas, faithful to the tradition he took from Ingres, wanted to see the angles of the figures, in order to represent them accordingly. That is why Degas focused on painting ballerinas, as a way to faithfully depict bodies in every position. In Degas paintings, we see the suggestion of movement and space and showed the rest of the impressionists that the new techniques of using light were not incompatible with the perfect drawing and depiction of reality. In that light, we consider that Degas’ value of abstraction is fairly low when compared with other impressionists, such as Cezanne or Manet.
To conclude, we shall contrast our painting with two other paintings located in the same gallery (Gallery 815 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). The paintings chosen were “Sulking” (1870), by Degas, and “Tea” (1872) by James Tissot. The Tissot’s painting is not as closely marked as impressionists, but he shares with Degas many characteristics, such as the well-drawn character, the usage of colors, and textures, and the everyday subjects. However, Tissot, unlike the impressionists, painted to appease the upper classes, and tended to hide his strokes, and depict his models in a better light. In this way, we can consider that Tissot might be a forefather of the vanity shots, and magazine photography. Regarding “Sulking”, the painting keeps the same elements, even the tonal palette, but this time, the strokes are better hidden and the figures are balanced in the middle of the painting. What we can see, when looking at this painting is that it looks like that Degas kept on using the same palette through his career. We consider that what we aimed to do in this essay is complete. We aimed to show a comprehensive analysis of the painting and contrast them with other paintings but after careful thought, we realized that there is nothing much to contrast.
Gombrich, E. H. The Story of Art. 16th ed. London: Phaidon, 1995. PrintRusso, T. The Dancers and Degas. New York City: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007. Print.
Trachtman, P. “Degas and His Dancers.” Smithsonian Magazine 23 Apr. 2003. Print.