Two dancers on stage by Degas

Degas and the Ballet: picturing movement

“It is an amazing exhibition”

David Franchi – Sunday 11th October 2011

It is an amazing exhibition “Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement” at the Royal Academy of Arts. It is focused, in fact, on ‘movement’ one of the most famous art topics of the nineteenth- twentieth century, approached from the point of view of the famous French artist Degas and his body of work on ballet.

The importance of movement as an art theme is undoubtedly. Futurism or Vorticism, for example, made of it an inspiration. It was one of the basic principles that pushed the technology research to invent, for instance, the camera or the film.

Degas and the ballet: picturing movement” presents a landmark exhibition focusing on the French artist fascination with movements of dance. The Royal Academy of Arts exhibition traces the development of Degas ballet imagery throughout his career, from the documentary style of the early 1870s to the opulent expressiveness of his final years. The exhibition includes around 85 paintings, sculptures, pastels, drawings, prints and photographs by Degas, as well as photographs by his contemporaries, and examples of early film.

Degas lived during decades that have seen the birth and first developments of cinema and photography. The Royal Academy of Arts exhibition, in fact, presents Degas’s progressive engagement with the figure in movement in the context of parallel advances in photography and early film. Degas was really open to the new technologies and often directly involved with them. The novelist Edmond Duranty claimed Degas as the inventor of “social chiaroscuro” – the light and dark of contemporary life, portrayed through the warm shimmer of footlights or the stark realism of the rehearsal room.

Little dancer aged fourteen by Degas

Highlights of the exhibition include such masterpieces as the celebrated sculpture ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’ (1880-81), which is displayed with a group of superb preparatory drawings that together show the artist tracking around his subject like a cinematic eye.

Degas was strictly connected with photographers Etienne-Jules Marey, Eadweard Muybridge and film -makers Lumière brothers. “Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement” investigates this Parisian network and their experiments and works with new technologies and art. Therefore, Degas could be considered a modern, radical artist who intensely faced visual problems and was fully familiar with the technological developments of his time.

Hilaire- Germain- Edgar De Gas (19th July 1834) was born in Paris, the eldest of five children, from a moderately wealthy family. His mother died when he was thirteen, and his father and grandfather remained the main influences on his early life. Aged eleven, Degas (when adult he left his pretentious family name) began his schooling and get a baccalauréat in literature in 1853.

By the age of eighteen, Degas had a studio in his home, and in 1853 he registered as a copyist in the Louvre. Following his father pressure, Degas enrolled at the Faculty of Law of the University of Paris in 1853, but he was a slack. In 1855, Degas met his beloved Ingres. Later in the same year, he was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts, where he studied drawing with Louis Lamothe.

In 1856, Degas travelled to Italy and in 1859, moved to Paris in a studio large enough to permit him to begin painting ‘The Bellelli Family’ and several history paintings.

At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Degas enlisted in the National Guard. During rifle training his eyesight was found to be defective and this issue worried him for the rest of his life.

In 1872, Degas travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana. His brother René and a number of other relatives lived there and Degas worked producing many depicting of family members. Degas returned to Paris in 1873. The following year his father died, and he found his brother René had created huge business debts. To protect the family name, Degas was forced to sell his house and an inherited art collection. He had to rely on sales of his artwork for income for the first time in his life.

Degas joined the exhibition ‘Impressionist Exhibitions’ (1874) organised by an independent exhibiting society made of a group of young artists. He produced much of his greatest work in the following decade. The Impressionists organised seven further shows the last in 1886.

Degas took a leading role in the group regardless of the continuous disputes with other members, such as Monet and the other landscape painters. Degas had traditionalist manners, he disliked the scandal created by the exhibitions, as well as the publicity that his colleagues sought. He indignantly refused to be labelled Impressionist and preferred to be called Realist. He persevered on including non-Impressionist artists in their exhibitions, provoking resentment within the group and contributing to its disbanding in 1886.

In the late 1880s, Degas get involved with photography shooting many of his friends. Other photographs of dancers and nudes were used for inspiration in his drawings and paintings.

As the years passed, Degas became isolated and deplored by many due to his argumentative nature. Also he believed that an artist could not have personal life. He broke with all his Jewish friends because of his anti-Semitic ideas following the Dreyfus Affair.

Degas apparently stopped working in 1912, when the looming demolition of his longtime residence forced him to move to quarters on the boulevard de Clichy. He never married and spent the last years of his life, nearly blind, restlessly wandering the streets of Paris before dying on 27th September 1917.

Curators are Richard Kendall, Curator at Large, The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown (USA), Jill DeVonyar, independent curator, and Ann Dumas, Exhibition Curator, Royal Academy of Arts. The exhibition is sponsored by BNY Mellon.

Showing from 17th December until 11th October 2011, “Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement” was at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD.