Degas And The Ballet: Picturing Movement, Royal Academy

When asked whether he and his Impressionist peers were revolutionaries, Degas indignantly said ‘Revolutionaries? We are tradition’ for Degas modern art was not about revolution or denigrating the past in favour of modernity, but instead developing a style of painting that mixed the bold contours of contemporary fashions with the colour and sensuality of the Old Masters, creating a style that had the penetrating effect of an Ingres or Delacroix but could also freshly articulate his contemporary surroundings. Edgar Degas is a pivotal cast member in the great Impressionist saga, which transformed the way we look at and perceive modern art; Degas and his peers were innovative story tellers, not the frivolous fops some have perceived them to be, whose art is only fit for a dainty chocolate box, no, these men were experimenters who cut their teeth in the spit and sawdust environment of the city’s backstreets, taking risks in the search for artistic perfection, chronicling the everyday lives of modern Parisians, at work and at play.


In his early years, as a young man eager for intellectual stimulation, Degas immersed himself in the study of Renaissance and Classical art, so captivated was he by these great men, from Raphael to Titian, who brought something of the divine and other worldly to life through their paint brush. In 1855 he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he studied drawing; he would literally spend hours, sometimes entire days sketching and copying works by the Old Masters, in an attempt to understand and perfect his own craft. It was his love of the performing arts which set Degas apart from other artists at the time.

When Impressionism began to be noticed by the cultural vanguard and the populous as a whole, whereas others would paint boulevard scenes and illuminate on the café culture of Paris, Degas spent most of his time haunting the citadels of performing arts, such as the Paris Opéra, where he became a ubiquitous fixture. He was diligent and, as some have remarked, fastidious in his attempts to transfer the art of performance on to canvas; sketching and drawing the same thing countless times until he was happy with it, in his own words ‘one must do the same subject over again ten times, a hundred times. In art nothing must resemble an accident, not even movement.’


This exhibition at the Royal Academy lays out the rich tapestry of Degas legacy; his pursuit in depicting the ephemeral beauty and creative spontaneity of dance, as authentically as he could; on display we see all manner of mediums, from charcoal sketches to his impressive oil paintings that display just how much of an artistic monolith he really was, and still remains to this day. Degas was a man whose desire to truly capture movement saw his techniques in a constant state of flux, so one can not speak of him in the confined paradigms of a single school, going back to the statement that the Impressionists were arts greatest experimenters, ever evolving until they reached a visual ecstasy.

One of Degas’ most innovative experiments, which stands to attention in the centre of the exhibit, is the bronze La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (Little Dancer of Fourteen Years) modelled on a young girl named Marie van Goethem, originally made from wax, garnished with a wig of real hair and her elfin like body clothed in a lace tutu, bodice and small satin ballet shoes; when the Parisian critics first saw the sculpture it was revered and reviled in equal measure, some saw it as a vapid piece of ugly self-indulgence, as it did not display any of the classical accents of sculpture; however, others remarked on its blossoming style and bold, provocative shapes. As an artist Degas was, on the whole, lauded in his lifetime and his influence spread far and wide, Jean-Louis Forain, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and others became devoted disciples to this cotemporary visionary.


Though on an ever constant quest to enhance the aesthetic experience, by garnering the new and the innovative to use to his advantage, Degas was implacably hostile towards photography, in his eyes it simply could not capture the robust vitality of human movement the way art could. However, as the year’s progressed and photographic technology enhanced, Degas finally came around to the idea and, by the late 1880’s, it inspired him to start work on his most ambitious project, a series of drawings showing a ballerina in motion; an idea which came from the photographic pioneer Étienne-Jules Marey, who shot entire sequences of movement on a single black Polaroid. As the 19th century was drawing to a close Degas began to use more piercing, brighter colours and moved away from painting broad performance scenes, instead focusing on the more intimate, partly due to his failing eye sight. His prolific and outstanding oeuvre shows that he was, indeed, a genius, whose fascination with the aesthetics of performance and determination to accurately portray the many shapes and contours of the human body never diminished, even in old age.

Charles Baudelaire once said “extract the eternal from the ephemeral” Degas managed to achieve this more than any other artist in history, from his pastel depictions of ballerinas performing Arabesque to his delicate charcoal sketches. This exhibition has achieved the mammoth task of retelling Degas’ story, the narrative of history’s greatest artistic explorer. Curators Richard Kendall and Jill DeVonyar have done the great man justice, creating something that is equally pleasurable and educational.