How Degas Immortalized the Opéra

May 9, 2020

Opera as a theatrical genre and ballet as a performance-based art started developing in France at the court of Louis XIV. Until the 19th century, both artistic forms became an important part of cultural life, especially in Paris, following the opening of the lavish opera house, the Palais Garnier, built by the architect Charles Garnier from 1861 to 1875. This structure was part of a grand-scale project of the renovation of Paris, and it certainly contributed to the modern image of the city.

Coinciding with these changes was the development of Modernism, the movement that eventually grew on a global scale and brought an entirely new worldview in all aspects of human activity. The painter and skillful draftsman who embraced the modern yearnings, yet presented them in his own manner, was Edgar Degas (1834–1917). His obsession with ballet is almost a commonplace; however, if observed more closely, a very special spot in his oeuvre has the Paris Opéra, as the place where magic happened.

To unravel the artist’s rich production inspired by this institution, the National Gallery of Art from Washington, DC and Musée d'Orsay from Paris, decided to jointly organize a survey called Degas at the Opéra, to honor the 350th anniversary of the Paris Opéra's founding with approximately one hundred of his best-known works, including paintings, drawings, prints, and even a wax sculpture.

Edgar Degas - The Dance Class
Edgar Degas - The Dance Class, c. 1873. Oil on canvas. Overall: 47.63 x 62.23 cm (18 3/4 x 24 1/2 in.), framed: 72.39 x 87.63 x 9.53 cm (28 1/2 x 34 1/2 x 3 3/4 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection)

Degas at the Opera

Interestingly so, this is the first exhibition to explore solely the significance of the Paris Opéra for Edgar Degas's work. As a matter of fact, since the mid-1860s up to his late works made after 1900, this cultural venue played a leading role in the artist’s practice. Degas was so devoted to Paris Opéra that he didn’t just enjoy the performances, but he also explored different spaces in the building such as auditorium, stage, and boxes, as well as dance studios and backstage.

Gradually, the renowned painter developed friendships with dancers, singers, musicians, and even the formally dressed attendees, all of them depicted in his paintings.

Degas approached the Opéra as an open-source of experimentation presented through both his memory and imagination; he took close examinations of the dancers' bodies during the rehearsals or in moments of waiting before performing, so his works reveal the outstanding psychological quality and are prime examples of the modern approach to the representation of the human figure.

Another feature that was novel at the time was the usage of multiple viewpoints to frame a scene enhanced by the contrasts of lighting.

Left Edgar Degas - The Song Rehearsal Right Edgar Degas - Dance Examination
Left: Edgar Degas - The Song Rehearsal, c. 1872. Oil on canvas. Overall: 80.96 x 64.93 cm (31 7/8 x 25 9/16 in.), framed: 100.33 x 85.09 x 8.89 cm (39 1/2 x 33 1/2 x 3 1/2 in.). House Collection, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC; Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss / Right: Edgar Degas - Dance Examination, 1880. Pastel on paper. Overall: 62.2 x 46.5 cm (24 1/2 x 18 5/16 in.). framed: 81.9 x 66.6 cm (32 1/4 x 26 1/4 in.). Lent by the Denver Art Museum

The Selection Of Works

The installment is arranged thematically in eight galleries, starting with his best-known works inspired by the Opéra such as Mlle Fiocre a propos of the Ballet "La Source" (c. 1867–1868), and The Ballet from "Robert le Diable" (1871). Among the paintings featuring Degas's musical circle is his portrayal of bassoonist Désiré Dihau included in the unconventional painting, The Orchestra of the Opera (c. 1870), as well as in Musicians in the Orchestra (Portrait of Désiré Dihau) (c. 1870).

The following group of works show the artist’s interest in depicting performers in rehearsal rooms, evoking the rigorous training of the dancers such as The Dance Class, as well as the works depicting the public spaces of the Opera such dynamic representations are Yellow Dancers (In the Wings) (1847/1876), The Curtain (c. 1880), and Dancer with a Bouquet Curtseying on Stage (1878).

The Paris Opéra inspired Degas to experiment with materials and format. In the late 1860s, he produced decorative fans using the semicircular format to explore the compositional possibilities. Eight of these are on display, including Dancers (1879), Ballet (c. 1880), and La Farandole (c. 1870). The artist also worked on a series of panoramic frieze paintings starting in the late 1870s, and six of these works are showcased, including Dancers in the Rehearsal Room with a Double Bass (c. 1882–1885) and Dancers in the Green Room (c. 1879).

Degas paid special attention to the body of the dancer whether caught in motion or at rest. Some of the highlights belonging to this group are Three Nude Dancers (c. 1903) and Three Dancers (1900–1905), as well as Dancer, Half-Length, Arms Crossed Behind her Head (c. 1890) and Study of a Dancer (1874) that feature dancers in a specific pose. The artist was also interested in the tiring processes behind the scenes, so he captured the scenes that evoke the seriousness and the humor of the life of the ballet dancer.

On view are also series of etchings and monotypes both based on a study La Famille Cardinal written by Halévy, about the lower-class Parisian life during the early years of the French government's Third Republic (1870–1940), as well as the wax sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1878–1881, National Gallery of Art), and a volume of pencil sketches depicting ballet dancers.

Although his eyesight failed as he got older, Edgar Degas continued to explore the Opéra. The exhibition ends with the selection of his late works, most of them in pastel, such as Blue Dancers (c. 1890), Dancer with Bouquets (1895–1900), and Ballet Scene (c. 1907).

Edgar Degas - The Ballet Rehearsal on Stage
Edgar Degas - The Ballet Rehearsal on Stage, 1874. Oil on canvas. Overall: 65 x 81.5 cm (25 9/16 x 32 1/16 in.), framed: 89.5 x 105.5 cm (35 1/4 x 41 9/16 in.). Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Bequest of Isaac de Camondo, 1911. Copyright RMN-Grand Palais / Photo: Patrice Schmidt / Art Resource, NY

Degas at The NGA

This remarkable exhibition curated by Edgar Degas expert Henri Loyrette (with the assistance of Kimberly A. Jones, curator of 19th-century French paintings, National Gallery of Art; Leïla Jarbouai, graphic arts curator, Musée d'Orsay; and Marine Kisiel, curator, Musée d'Orsay) casts fresh light on the artist’s lasting career, and the fascinating devotion to the Opera as a place where he was able to express himself to the fullest.

Degas at the Opera is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC until October 12, 2020. It can also be experienced through a virtual guided tour.

Editors’ Tip: Degas at the Opera

From his debut in the 1860s up to his final works after 1900, the Paris Opera formed a focal point of Edgar Degas's paintings. He explored the theater's various spaces―auditorium and stage, private boxes, foyers, and dance studios―and painted those who frequented them: dancers, singers, orchestral musicians, audience members, and subscribers watching from the wings. This theater presented a microcosm of infinite possibilities, allowing him to experiment with multiple points of view, contrasting lighting, motion, and the precision of movement. This catalog, created in concert with an exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, considers the Paris Opera’s influence on Degas as a whole, examining not only his passionate relationship with the house and his musical tastes, but also the infinite resources of the opera's marvelous toolbox.

Degas at the Opera

Featured image: Edgar Degas - Practicing in the Rehearsal Room, 1873–1875. Oil on canvas. Overall: 40.64 x 54.61 cm (16 x 21 1/2 in.); framed: 57.9 x 71.7 x 8 cm (22 13/16 x 28 1/4 x 3 1/8 in.). The Phillips Collection, Gift of Anonymous Donor; Madame Camus, 1869/1870. Oil on canvas. Overall: 72.7 x 92.1 cm (28 5/8 x 36 1/4 in.); framed: 97.1 x 117.1 cm (38 1/4 x 46 1/8 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection. All images courtesy The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

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