When we think about depicting a motion, what arts do we recall in our minds? Performance, movies, may be photography? Why don’t we think of painting? Yes, we may consider it as a still image. However, it can contain much more movement, than we would expect.
A great painter, who was interested in motion as much as we are is Edgar Degas. He was born in 1834 in Paris, France, in the wealthy family of bankers. Degas was born in the era of the Industrial Revolutions and continuous scientific discoveries. The world was changing, so did society, and therefore – art. He witnessed the Impressionists “Art Revolution” and, actually, had a great influence on it as well as on the whole modern art we have now. And the second fact, wealthy family, is quite rare phenomenon in the art world. He did not need financial help, so he was completely free in his choice of style or subject for the paintings. No pressure of need to sell your pictures to make a living! His family supported his passion of becoming an artist, and it helped him to work just as he wanted to. Although, we know very little of his personality and character, according to the memoirs and notebooks of his numerous friends, we know that he was a perfectionist. He is the type of painter who finishes his painting when it’s taken away from him. He kept adding details and improving colors in attempt of creating the perfection. In a way, he shared this quality with ballerinas, who attempt to become perfection in movement.
His paintings of ballet dancers have become his visit card. They had already become very popular during his lifetime. What’s the secret? He was not the first one to portray them. It is the way he did it. With the unique combination of the Renaissance masters’ legacy and urge to create something completely new, he managed to develop new type of realism that was not appropriate in academic circles. He chose unexpected points of view on his paintings, depicted details of the performance routine and the reactions in audience. This was completely new. He didn’t romanticize ballet, as was done before, turning dancers into pretty entourage. He painted ballerinas mastering their movements, resting between exercises, being backstage practicing, talking etc. He pictured the whole background behind performance.
And it was not easy to get a sneak peek at the ballerinas’ everyday routine. He asked for help of his influential friends to become abonné , privileged high-society gentlemen who had a “pass” to get behind the scenes. There was the whole system of the relationships between abonné, ballerinas and their mothers aimed at successful acquaintances or even marriage. But as far as we know, Degas had a professional eye for the dancers. “Women can never forgive me; they hate me, they feel I am disarming them. I show them without their coquetry.” This may be also the reason for his estrangement. And there goes the power of Degas novation: never before painter had depicted ballet in such naturalistic way. Of course, some people didn’t appreciate “depoetization” of life that Degas implied in his work. But he brought fascination to simple things and real life situations. The ballet isn’t just pretty performance, it is tremendous amount of work, and dancers live that live every day. Degas used to come to their practices and made his sketches while ballerinas were mastering their movements. He came to the point, where he could tell when someone did it wrong, criticizing the elegance of some dancers.
He is known to study the movements of circus performers, particularly Miss Lala, famous acrobat at that time, who was acknowledged for her incredible strengths and fearless acrobatic tricks. One of the most popular Miss Lala performances was to hold on with her teeth to the rope, hanged on top of the circus ceiling. Degas came over and over to see her performance and made some raw drafts to catch the dynamics. He dated each drawing to see the changing lines from different perspective. And the final painting was miraculous. Considering the unusual viewer’s point and great dynamics of Miss Lala, Degas work brought a modern twist in a portrayal of movement and circus culture that inspired many artists to embrace fascination of circus in their works.
In his attempts of achieving the perfection in art, Degas is quite similar to the ballet dancers he pictured. “…And it is really very humorous to see him [Degas], up on his toes, and with his arms curved, blending the aesthetics of the dance master with the aesthetics of the painter.”(Degas, is imitating for the brothers Goncourt the gestures of dancers, and showing them the pictures he had made of the dancers)
Edgar Degas with his realistic approach and pioneering artistic view, had created a new niche of interest to movement and dancing performances; he went with a flow of a new art era, searching for unusual solutions in scientific progress; he brought the ballet to the scene of art, and created the whole new understanding of the work behind it. “A painter of modern life had been born, moreover, a painter who derived from and resembled no other, who brought with him a totally new artistic flavor, as well as totally new skills.” There is a very good quote from French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire to describe Degas vision of ballet that we can observe in his oeuvre
“Dance is poetry with arms and legs; it is matter, gracious and terrible, animated, embellished by movement.”