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Edgar Degas Art – His Stunning Renditions of the Paris Ballet Opera

Edgar Degas was a French artist of the 19th century. Although not strictly an impressionist painter himself, he aligned himself with the impressionists and exhibited with them. The most famous Edgar Degas art pieces are his paintings, sculptures and pastels depicting the ballet dancers of the prestigious Paris Opera. In fact of the hundreds of artworks created by Degas, half of them are of Ballerinas.

Who was Edgar Degas?

Edgar Degas was grew up in a wealthy family. His father was a Parisian banker and he was schooled in the best art academies. In the beginning of his art career, he painted mainly portraits and traditional paintings. However in his later years, he preferred to capture scenes of modern Paris life. Initially he painted horse racing scenes but later moved on to capturing the ballet dancers at the esteemed Paris Opera.

Degas considered himself a realist. However he associated with the modern artists (later known as the impressionists). Together with these avant garde painters, they organized independent exhibitions, later called and scorned the “impressionist exhibitions”.

Unlike the impressionists, Edgar Degas preferred to depict urban scenes. He was not an outdoors type at all! However, he was revolutionary in that he researched and explored different artistic forms for capturing human movement. Edgar Degas worked meticulously in analyzing the different positions and movements of the Ballet dancers.

Edgar Degas was also financially secure as he came from an upper-class background. He did not need to sell his paintings as a livelihood. As such, he could pick and choose when he wanted to exhibit his artworks and decided whether or not he wanted to sell his art.

Degas was also an avid art collector. When he died in 1917, they found in his home a massive collection of paintings, drawings, and prints. His art collection included artworks of the traditional artists such as Delacroix, Ingres, and Daumier and modern artworks of his contemporaries, such as Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Mary Cassatt.

Edgar Degas Art - Self Portrait 1855
Edgar Degas Art – Self Portrait 1855

Below are three Edgar Degas Art Pieces You should Know!

Sculpture called “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years”

Edgar Degas sculpted the “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years” in 1880. The artist originally sculpted this piece using bees wax, which was an unusual choice of medium for that period. When Degas completed the sculpture, he dressed it with a tutu, bodice and ballet slippers. He also used a wig of real hair.

From this original wax sculpture, 28 bronze copies were made after Degas died. Art museums and galleries around the world proudly showcase these bronze statues. The tutus worn by the bronze dancers vary from museum to museum.

Edgar Degas Art
The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen – Edgar Degas Art

Who was the model for this statue?

The original statue is based on a real life, young, Paris Opera ballerina called Marie van Goethem. She spent hours modeling for Edgar Degas. The relationship between the two is unknown and debated. The young ballet dancers of the Paris Opera, were nicknamed the “Petit Rats”.

They were given this derogatory name as they were mostly working class girls from low income families. They also had a reputation of being “kept”, earning an extra income by providing sexual services to much older, wealthy and married men.

Edgar Degas disdained the young ballet dancers, even though they were a major subject matter of his artworks. Rather than creating an angelic looking ballerina, Degas chose to portray her in this sculpture as as an ugly dancer. She poses for Degas in the “forth ballet position” and with her arms and hands in an uncomfortably stretched position behind her back. Marie probably spent hours in this awkward position. However, despite Marie’s difficult life as a dancer, this sculpture also portrays a young girl with her head held high, struggling for an ounce of dignity.

The Little Dancer by Edgar Degas is iconic. It is considered one of his most famous pieces. It is a very poignant sculpture, as it really captures the hardships of the young ballet dancers of the 19th century.

Stunning Degas Pastels

Edgar Degas often traveled around Paris with his sketchbooks, drawing scenes that caught his eye. Some of these sketches became artworks in their own right. Others were the foundation of later paintings or pastels.

In the late 1870s, Degas started experimenting with pastels. He often started with a charcoal or a pencil draft and then later filled these sketches with beautiful pastel colors. His most famous pastels art pieces are the Paris Opera ballerinas but he also captured other Paris scenes using pastels.

Edgar Degas Pastel Entitled: Ballet Dancers in the Wings

In the pastel artwork entitled Ballet Dancers in the Wings, Degas portrays four exhausted looking ballerinas. These girls are not the famous principal ballerinas of the Paris Opera. Rather, they are dancers of the Opera ballet corps and mostly out of the limelight. Degas portrays these girls as waiting for their next ballet practice. They appear slumped from hours of ballet practice and physically exhausted. Such was the difficult life of these young ballet dancers. It was far from glamorous and Degas masterfully depicts this.

Degas was one of the lucky few to be given access to the backstage of the Paris Opera. He often captured the dancers during practice or just waiting around. Even though he often painted in a realistic style most of the time, this artwork is very impressionistic. He draws with quick strokes and uses bold pastel colors to portray the scene, such as light pinks, vibrant yellows, aqua blues and emerald greens. These are not realistic colors but Degas aims to capture the ‘impresssion’ of the moment using his own interpretation.

Ballet Dancers in the Wings - Edgar Degas pastel artwork
Ballet Dancers in the Wings – Edgar Degas Art

The Sordid Truth of the Paris Opera Ballet Dancers

Young females of the ballet corps often started their ballet career as very young girls. Many came from poor, working-class backgrounds. They often joined the ballet with hope and expectation to financially assist their impoverished families back home. They trained six days a week, each day being long and gruelling.

The more sinister side of their careers was that many made significant, additional income by providing sexual services to rich, powerful and older men, called the abonnés. These men were often patrons of the Paris Opera and important donors. As such, these men could go backstage whenever they wanted and ‘check out’ the young girls. This was common knowledge and some mothers even encouraged their daughters to flirt and appease these men for added income.

Edgar Degas was fully aware of the sexual services that these young girls provided to older men. He scorned these girls as being dirty “petit rats”. He felt no empathy towards them at all!

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Edgar Degas Impressionism Painting entitled: The Star (L’Étoile)

In this beautiful painting, Degas portrays the prima ballerina performing on stage. The light is shining brightly on her and she is the star of the show. The beautiful ballerina is like a royal princess, flowers embellishing her white tutu, a ribbon flowing from her neck and her head adorned with a beautiful crown. She is the dream of every young girl of Paris, a famous and accomplished principal ballerina of the esteemed 19th century Paris Opera.

However, Degas cleverly wants to show us that she is not just an accomplished, principal ballet dancer, performing to perfection. Partially hidden behind the curtain, is a foreboding black-suited male figure waiting for his prized possession. This man is the ballet dancer’s patron, patiently and quietly waiting for his young beauty. Behind the glitz and glamour of the moment, her performance will end and her reality will change in an instant. This accomplished ballerina will finish her performance and will then provide whatever services her patron desires.

Again Degas cynically reminds us that even the principal ballerina of the Paris Opera is only another female prostitute. Her life is far from glamourous and she is beholden to the whims of this rich, older and controlling man. To Degas, she is another petit rat…. a dirty, lowly prostitute.

The Star (1878) - Edgar Degas Art
The Star (1878) – Edgar Degas Art

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