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Music and Art

Shall We Dance?
Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917), <I>Ballet Girl in Repose</I>, about 1880-82, charcoal on light tan paper
zoom Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917), Ballet Girl in Repose, about 1880-82, charcoal on light tan paper


No other artist has painted the ballet like Edgar Degas. Degas captured dancers at nearly every moment—at rest, rehearsing, preparing backstage, performing, and taking curtain calls. All his paintings show his careful observations of the dancers’ movements, from the various dance positions to the slightest stretch.

Even the youngest dancers (whom he called “little rats”) caught Degas’s attention. The girl in this drawing was only about eight years old. Her inexperience as a dancer can be seen in the way she sits—slumped over, unaware that the artist is observing her every move.

And Degas sketched every little shift of her body! Even in this small drawing you can see how she moved. Her right arm lightly rubs her knee. Faint outlines show that she moved her left arm several times, stretching it up, then extending it down toward her knee, and finally bringing it up to her face. Quick dashes of line around her back and legs also suggest movement.

It is interesting to know that Degas didn’t start painting dancers because of a great love for the ballet. “They call me the painter of dancers,” he reportedly said, “without understanding that for me the dancer has been the pretext for painting beautiful fabrics and rendering movement.” Whatever his motive, Degas will always be associated with the ballet.

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1. Degas also depicted dancers in his sculptures.
Edgar Degas, Dancer Putting on Her Stocking, 19th century, bronze
2. Degas sketched the musicians in the orchestra as well as the dancers onstage.
Edgar Degas, The Violinist, about 1879, charcoal heightened with white chalk on gray paper


March 2007