Analysis Of Edgar Degas’ Painting Dancers Practicing At The Barre

Dancers practicing at the Barre is an Impressionist, oil on canvas painting created by Edgar Degas in 1877. It lives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Degas’s choice of subject matter reflects his modern approach. He favored scenes of ballet dancers. His interest in ballet dancers intensified in the 1870s, and eventually he produced approximately 1,500 works on the subject. These are not traditional portraits, but studies that address the movement of the human body, exploring the physicality and discipline of the dancers through the use of contorted postures and unexpected vantage points. 

Dancers Practicing at the Barre (1877), the figure’s pose conveys a sense of the dancer’s flexibility. Unusual vantage points and asymmetrical framing are a consistent theme throughout Degas’ works, especially in his many paintings and pastels of ballet dancers, from the time of Dancers Practicing at the Barre (1877). He achieves a more modern effect by disrupting the compositional balance. Degas had a lively, scientific interest in a wide range of media, including engraving, monotype, and photography. Before 1880, he generally used oils for his completed works, which were based on preliminary studies and sketches made in pencil or pastel. But after 1875, he began using pastels more frequently. Degas has a fitting tribute to an artist who continually repeated himself, exploring figures in the same poses over and over, trying out different media, different angles, different combinations of line and color. 

The painting “Dancers at the Barre,” begins to reveal layers of underpainting demonstrating the care, the repetition, the echolalia of this thoughtful, restless, obsessive artist. The carefully balanced image has become iconic: two women who seem to be one organism, their torsos and limbs emerging from a single blue semicircle of diaphanous skirt, against a wall of contrasting orange. Degas’s visual dance is based on opposing colors, counterbalanced figures, gravity and weightlessness. In his ballet works, the limbs are the defining features, strong and modeled and earthly, while the skirts seem to float, clouds defying the limits of the body. He works to establish the vertical pole of a dancer’s body, the central axis of the weight-bearing leg. The process was one of increasing abstraction. At some point in the work — Degas continued to return to the canvas for 20 years — he moved the lower foot and leg of the nearer, right-hand dancer, elongating them beyond realism, giving them a gestural truth instead of a literal one. The dancer takes flight. Poised on a stalk of leg that would fit no human body, she is freed from the laws of gravity. Degas’s images of dancers are about the making of art. The idea is explicit in paintings such as “Dancers at the Barre,” which shows dancers at rest, dancers practicing — dancers who are about to make, or have just made, dance, but who are not formally doing so at the moment. In other works, the link between a dancer’s body and a painter’s brush stroke is made manifest as Degas turns limbs into strong gestural components in intricate, frieze-like compositions. An interlacing of arms moves dynamically across the canvas, above the floating cloud of tulle skirts. There is always, in these works, a great attention to surface, and the intersection of figure and ground, foot and floor. 

In the 1890s, Degas began to work mainly in pastels, a medium that allowed him to fuse his sense of color — all those opposing tones: blue and orange — with his prodigious gifts in manipulating line. Instead of lines of action, with flowing arms and legs, we get increasingly solid figures, dancers set in stone. “Dancers at the Barre” shows exactly the moment at which painting leaves the limits of the literal — the hard-earned, 20-year process through which Degas was able to take flight himself. From Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City: The watering can, visible at left, was a standard fixture in ballet rehearsal rooms; water was sprinkled on the floor to keep dust from rising when ballerinas danced. Degas also used the watering can as a visual pun: its shape is mimicked by that of the dancer at right. 

Shown at the 1877 Impressionist exhibition, the painting was given by Degas to the collector Henri Rouart as a replacement for an earlier work (now lost), which the artist altered and accidentally destroyed. Louisine Havemeyer purchased it from Rouart's estate sale in 1912, for $95,700, a record price for a work by a living artist. Dancers at the Barre is reunited with full-scale pastel and charcoal sketches of its dancers shown individually and together. He was intensifying its color palette and repositioning and blurring the contours of the figures. For museum founder Duncan Phillips, Dancers at the Barre was “a masterpiece... in its daring record of instantaneous change at a split second of observation,” in which Degas “miraculously transformed the incident of swiftly seen shapes in time into a thrilling vision of dynamic forms in space.” 

Dancers Practising at the Barre, from 1877, is a bridge between these two groups, in showing two dancers in a training context. Degas’ attention is divided between their form, and a more expansive composition including props like the watering can.

16 December 2021
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