Degas and the Ballet - Picturing Movement

"A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people." 

These words from the "painter of dancers" Edgar Degas (18 July 1834-27 September 1917) speak volumes about the allure and beauty of his paintings.  At the beginning of his journey Degas was impressed by the art of the French and Italian masters and when he visited Rome in 1857 he filled 28 sketchbooks from the art he saw around him.  By 1860 he had copied no fewer than 700 Renaissance and Classical works.  Degas said: "It is essential to do the same subject over again, ten times, a hundred times. Nothing in art must seen to be chance, not even movement." 


Degas’s developed a fascination with dance and this turned into a lifelong obsession. He will always be remembered first and foremost as the painter of dancers - in the same way that Monet is for water lilies.   From the 1870s, Degas put his meticulous observations to use as he scrutinised ballerinas warming up, exercising as well as their backstage movements and he studied performances at the Paris OpĂ©ra, home of the national ballet company.  He sketched everything.

Dancer reading paper, 1878/9
Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement, at the Royal Academy (17 September-11 December 2011) chronicles the artist’s achievements in capturing the movement of ballerinas and freezing their athletic, graceful energy and vitality, often from poses that the dancers would only have held for a second.  Degas' ballerinas are not weak, frail creatures but strong, dynamic bodies which he portrayed in a way which shocked critics of his day.

Don't miss this awe-inspiring exhibition at the Royal Academy which links Degas' art to a history of early photography and film, which so influenced his work in later years.

L'Etoile, 1876
Although Degas embraced photography, the ethereal quality of his work, with muted shades, depth and mystery reveal how he observed closely and perfected his art to create intimate masterpieces.  In the artist's own words: "It is very well to copy what one sees; it's much better to draw what one has retained in one's memory. It is a transformation in which imagination collaborates with memory."

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