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Fast forward to the ballet: Degas at the RA

Just how to depict speed and movement became an obsession for artists in the 1870s, says Nina Caplan. For Degas, the answer lay in the intimate world of women and dance

The Man

“No art was ever less spontaneous than mine,” said Edgar Degas, and he was boasting, not confessing.

Born into banking wealth in 1834, Degas became the painter of dancers, singers, racecourse jockeys and their mounts, and of nudes engaged in activity that the public wasn’t supposed to see: washing, or awaiting customers at the brothel. The formidable draughtsman who learned patience as well as technique from the Old Masters chose subjects who also spent their time painstakingly building an illusion of effortlessness.

His dancers work fiercely hard, and he drew them practising at the barre (Study of a Dancer), or painted them waiting to dash on stage, their extravagant outfits a contrast to their casual stance. As for his nudes, a woman clambering into her bathtub might seem spontaneous (if shockingly intrusive), except that she’s an artist’s model. And Degas would have reworked reality to suit his vision. Interior vision, that is: his eyesight was damaged when he helped defend Paris from the Prussian Army in 1870, and by the end of his long life he was almost blind.

Degas exhibited with the Impressionists, but was never one of them. Their response to a world motoring at ever-faster speeds away from tranquillity was to move faster too: painting outside, trying to capture a fragment of time. Degas stayed indoors, in the boudoir or the Opéra, and the Royal Academy’s autumn exhibition charts his progress, evolving ways to represent modern life via one of the most ancient of spectacles: women dancing.

The Work

Even the Impressionists, juddering back and forth before their canvases (and obliging viewers to do likewise), were no more obsessed with movement than Degas. A pastel dancer raises herself en pointe, presumably for sheer love of her craft (Two Dancers in the Foyer); an oil ballerina dips her head at a carefully prescribed angle before an audience (Two Dancers on the Stage). Both paintings celebrate motion: dance itself, but also the complicated pattern of steps between public and private.

Degas painted, drew and etched dancers obsessively until his eyesight was so bad that sculpture was more practical, but he exhibited only one statue in his lifetime, of a Paris “rat” (the young girls cruelly overworked for the delectation of the ballet loving bourgeoisie). He gave her a gauze tutu, real hair and a painted face. The result, predictably, was outrage, although that may not be why other sculptures mouldered in his studio, to be cast in bronze only posthumously: by old age he had become obsessed with holding on to his work, saying that he wished he were rich enough to buy back all his early paintings and put his foot through them.

The esteemed art critic Edmond de Goncourt was lyrical in praise of Degas’ talent, but added dubiously that “he seems to have a very restless mind”. The twitchiness was, however, all internal: Degas never lived anywhere but Paris. Along with his friend Manet, he became very interested in Japanese art in the 1860s, and stole the strong diagonals, odd perspectives and sharp cropping for his own work. But it was to nearby ballerinas, dance teachers and musicians that he applied these lessons: the mind may have been restless but the paintbrush barely even ventured on to the Paris streets.

The Lover

Aged 38, Degas wrote to a friend: “It is really a good thing to be married, to have children, to be free of the need of being gallant. Ye gods, it is really time one thought about it.” He never did more than think about it. There is no evidence of any romantic relationship, and his lack of enthusiasm for gallantry extended to his work: his teenage dancers are often square-jawed and lowbrowed, his nudes lumpy, his viewpoint invasive. Why make women look ugly, a lady once asked. “Because, Madame, in general women are ugly.” This is impossible to take at face value. Degas painted more women than anything else; there may be bored backstage dancers, such as the thick-legged, garish duo in The Red Ballet Skirts, but there are on stage portrayals that are heartstoppingly lissom: presentation, in art as in dance, is what matters. Degas used light to enhance the sense of movement, from the uplighting at the start of a performance that reflects and illuminates the raised arms and conductor’s baton, to the dip as the curtain comes down. He would insert an uplifted leg or a headless torso; in The Ballet Rehearsal he does both, and we fill in the rest of the dancer, moving into or out of the frame. No wonder he was so interested in the new techniques of photography and cinema.

Degas’ women are there to serve the art – even in his portraits, making them masterly examples of psychological realism but no way to earn a living. He never sold a commercial portrait, for which his famously irascible nature was probably less responsible than the bluntness of the pictures themselves. In 1886, critic and novelist Huysmans described Degas’ pastel bathers as “the marriage and adultery of colour”. In this passionate relationship, any real woman would have been de trop.

The Legacy

When Degas died in 1917, a trove of unseen paintings and sculptures was revealed, such as Dancer: Fourth Position Front on the Leg. Degas was already a lodestar to younger talents such as Van Gogh and Gauguin (he outlived them both) and cared greatly how he was perceived: “You behave as though you have no talent,” he once said to the American painter James Whistler, so betraying a hyper-awareness of public opinion and a tactlessness that only increased with age. Then there was the Dreyfus Affair, the imprisonment of a Jewish officer that uncovered the seething anti-Semitism beneath the French Establishment. Degas spoke against the Jews, and posterity has not forgiven him. But it is possible his rage against the dying of the light was turned against the world, He wrote in 1884: “I piled all my plans in a cupboard for which I always carried the key. And I have lost the key.”

Two Dancers executed in 1905 when Degas was 71, shows this was untrue. Still, that restless mind was facing its own quietening. One hatred remained consistent though: he loathed pomposity. He didn’t want a funeral oration, he told the painter Forain on his deathbed. If something must be said, Degas instructed, stand up and announce: "He greatly loved drawing. So do I."

‘Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement’ is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020 7300 8000) from 17 Sept to 11 Dec