Degas and His Dance Class

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Justin Jones

Art History 245

Prof. Kim de Beaumont

June 27, 2012

Degas and His Dance Class

Edgar Degas was born in Paris in 1834 to an upper middle class family. He started crafting his art early in his adolescent years by painting copies of works that were on display at the Louvre. Even though he passionately enjoyed painting and the arts his father expected him to go to law school. Therefore, Degas registered at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris in November of 1853, but made very little effort. Soon after, he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts and began to focus on what he was truly passionate about. While attending, he was guided by Louis Lamothe, an academic artist and pupil to Ingres and Flandrin, who helped him develop his technique. After his education, he moved to Italy for the span of a few years and developed his painting techniques even further by copying the works of Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and various other Renaissance artists. By doing this, he became accomplished in techniques of high, academic and classical art.

Degas returned to Paris in 1859 and began to focus on making a name for himself as a respected artist by taking the traditional approach and painting portraits as well as historical scenes. Such works as The Daughter of Jephtha(1), Semiramis Building Babylon(2), and Scene of War in the Middle Ages(3) got him accepted into the Salon, with his first showing in 1865, but were received with little attention and with indifference. Eventually, he changed his focus and began to paint more contemporary subjects, which was primarily influenced by Édouard Manet whom he had met while painting copies at the Louvre in 1864.

Due to the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Degas put his painting on hold and joined the National Guard. After the war, he left his life in Paris and started an extended stay in New Orleans, where his brother and various family members lived. While in New Orleans, he painted the only painting that was ever purchased by a museum during his lifetime – A Cotton Office in New Orleans(4) – sold to the Musèe des Beaux-Arts in Pau, France in 1878.

Returning to Paris in 1873, Degas no longer had the comfortable lifestyle that he had grown up with. Due to the death of his father and the realization of his brother’s immense business debt, Degas was forced to survive solely on the profits from his artwork. Because of his immense dissatisfaction with the Salon, Degas joined fellow artists Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and more in their own show with the first Impressionist Exhibition being in 1874.

Originally intended for the first Impressionist Exhibition but shown at the second, The Dance Class(5), one of Degas’s greatest pieces of artwork, portrays a dance class conducted by the famous ballet master Jules Perrot. The work is generally thought to be a tribute to the teacher rather than a depiction of an actual dance class conducted by him due to the fact that Perrot’s contract at the Opera was not renewed after 1835. Yet, Degas continued to include him in his paintings to “reinstate his authority.”[1] At this point in time, the ballet had become a focal point for society with the uprising popularity in public leisure activities. Ballerinas became high-profile people in society which led to coulisses, or gossip column journalism. These columns fed a public appetite for scandal and rag-to-riches success within this world.[2]

The scene is a careful arrangement of what seems to be a random collection of postures and poses. He depicts a rehearsal in which the dancers are in the rehearsal studio, resting or waiting to perform from an oblique angle of vision. One ballerina, who is the central focus of the composition, dances while the others are practicing around her, presumably waiting for their turns. Some adjust their costumes while others just sit or stand in various postures. Toni...
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