Developments in the 19th Century


Art Styles in 19th century - Art Map


The Impressionism


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Edgar Degas




The son of a wealthy family of landowners, Degas initially studied law. In 1855, however, he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Between 1854 and 1859, he travelled in Italy and found himself enthralled by the early Renaissance painters. He began by painting mythological and historical subjects and a number of large-scale portraits, before his encounter with Manet and the other artists in the Cafe Guerbois. He later joined the Impressionists, although he always remained an artist who preferred painting indoors in neatly defined surroundings than en plein air. Degas turned to sculpting in his old age when his eyesight had seriously deteriorated. His famous bronze figures were cast after his death from the wax models that were left in his studio.



With Impressionism, the definition of the visual field of a painting was thrown open to experimentation. The relationship between the point of observation and the subject matter of a picture became much less straightforward. In Degas' depiction of the horse races in At the Races, Gentlemen Jockeys (1877—80), the differing planes on which the various protagonists are situated separate each of their roles in the picture. Each person is depicted from a different angle, and a large part of the canvas remains empty, almost as if it were a moment of real life. This can also be said of Caillebotte's Paris, a Rainy Day (1877), in which the artist chooses a very particular angle from which to paint. He succeeds in presenting with equal importance the figures on the right, the general bustle of the passers-by in the middle ground, and the rain-drenched streets and the buildings that intersect and frame the square.


Edgar Degas
At the Races, Gentlemen Jockeys
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Degas and horse racing

In the mid-19th century, horse racing became extremely popular in Parisian society.
Both Manet and Degas were part of the well-bred racing fraternity and
attended many of the races at Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne.
Degas preferred to depict the moments before the race began,
such as those in the painting illustrated above.
He produced over 300 works of art on the racecourse theme.





Unidealized nudes

For one who so openly professed contempt for women, Degas was strangely fascinated by the female nude. But he also brutally demystifies it: the women he depicts are wholly unideal and lacking in individuality. Instead, his interest is in form, the figure reduced to an animating agent. He loved, he said, to paint as if "through the keyhole," catching his subjects when they thought themselves unobserved. The pastel painting Girl Drying Herself is typical. We see only the back of this young woman as she stands with gawky tension upon her clothes. It is the rosy gleam of the light that provides romance and the hollow and swell of her muscles as she dries herself with animal vigor.


Edgar Degas
Girl Drying Herself


Edgar Degas
Women Combing her Hair




Edgar Degas

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

born July 19, 1834, Paris, Fr.
died Sept. 27, 1917, Paris

French artist, acknowledged as the master of drawing the human figure in motion (see ). Degas worked in many mediums, preferring pastel to all others. He is perhaps best known for his paintings, drawings, and bronzes ofballerinas and of race horses.

Degas came of the powerful upper bourgeoisie, his family having bankingand business connections both in Italy and in the United States, and he was intended for the law, which he studied for a time after leaving the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. In 1855, however, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts and entered the studio of Louis Lamothe, a pupil of the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whose long-established position as defender of academic orthodoxy in draftsmanship and subject matter was being challenged by the realism of Gustave Courbet as well as by the romanticism of Eugène Delacroix.

It seems likely that as a young man Degas wished to succeed along orthodox lines as a painter of historical subjects in the grand French tradition. To further his aim he augmented his studies by visiting Florence, Assisi, Rome, and Naples and by closely observing and copying the works of Andrea Mantegna, Sandro Botticelli, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Nicolas Poussin, all notable for their scrupulousness in figure draftsmanship. Before 1860 Degashad produced some splendid family portraits in which the effect of this discipline, though clear, is heightened by a taut,alert urbanity that belongs unmistakably to the mid-19th century. The “Portrait of the Duchess of Morbilli” is typical ofthis group. It is broadly designed with large, simple surfaces rather flatly modeled in the manner of Ingres; the paint is solid, yet delicate, and the colours cool and restrained, with many black and neutral passages. In 1860 Degas made his debut as a painter of classical subjects with his “Young Spartans Exercising”; but here the nude figures, though arranged in balanced groups, are those of real adolescents ina natural landscape instead of idealized nudes in an Arcadian setting.

After 1861, when Degas painted “Semiramis Founding Babylon,” again with academic intentions, he seems to have abandoned historical painting and begun to seek his subject matter in the fast-moving city life of Paris. In this he was probably inspired by contemporaries like Courbet and Édouard Manet (whom he met in 1862), by contemporary novelists, and by the discovery, late in the 1850s, of the astonishing formal yet documentary quality of Japanese graphic art. Nor did he overlook the brilliant work of contemporary French graphic artists such as Paul Gavarni and Honoré Daumier. It is not surprising that by 1862 he was painting the riders, their mounts, and the smart spectators atLongchamp racecourse, soon afterward beginning the portrait groups of musicians and stage subjects, which, like all subjects in which the sitters were absorbed in practiced movement, fascinated him throughout his life. Among the first of the latter is the “Mlle Fiocre in the Ballet ‘La Source'.” His portraits of the 1870s show greater ease and naturalism than the very first group but are still based on a discipline traceable to Holbein and the great north Italian portraitists.

Degas served in the artillery during the Franco-German War of 1870–71. On his return, he began to undertake ambitious figure groups, seen informally and in movement, and continued his studies of stage and orchestral groups. From these he passed to instantaneous renderings of both outdoorand indoor scenes, using displaced figure grouping and unorthodox cutting and perspective rather in the manner of acameraman. Yet his magnificent formal sense and skill is always present to provide an equilibrium, however momentary, to these exacting subjects. The “Place de la Concorde (Vicomte Lepic and His Daughters)” is a fine example and an outdoor counterpart to the ballet subjects that gave Degas endless scope for multifigure groups seen in fast intercepted movement. Degas visited the United States in October 1872, staying for five months and painting one of his best-known scenes of figures in absorbed “occupational” movement. This was the “New Orleans Cotton Office” of 1873; it shows that although Degas had completely abandoned his early ambition of historical figure painting, he had, nevertheless, put to full use the structural principles of the formal tradition.

During the 1870s, most of Degas's figure groups were arranged against fairly extended background space, in whichthe figures themselves were given plenty of room. By the end of the decade, however, he was becoming interested in the pictorial possibilities of more closely juxtaposed and superimposed groups and giving more attention to the formal qualities of the voids between them. The famous “Repasseuses” (“Two Laundresses”) of 1884 shows this tendency at an advanced stage, with an artificially shallow picture space and a reconciliation of solid form and surface reminiscent of Venetian mid-16th-century art in method but here applied with a documentary eye to a casual workaday subject. By this time Degas had begun to work in pastel, sometimes using a mixed technique with volatile oil mediums, and his indoor series of women at their ablutions carries on the researches mentioned above. Some of the later ones reach an astonishing compromise between plasticity and surface pattern, the flesh colours being built up of strips of pure colour more closely knit than the taches of the Impressionists but, like them, merging at a certain distance to give the illusion of solid modeling.

After 1880 Degas was practicing occasionally as a sculptor, and a group of small bronzes deriving from his models of dancers, bathing women, and horses again show his power of revealing the potentialities of the ordinary unobserved movements of human beings and animals. Degas, in fact, perhaps for the first time in history, viewed his animal and human models with the same dispassionate eye when making these studies. He was interested in photography, and there is an affinity between his vision and that of a high-speed camera. Degas's eyesight failed in later life; he became completely blind in one eye and nearly so in the other. At his death he left an important collection of the drawings and paintings of his contemporaries and a notebook of poetic compositions, mostly in sonnet form.

David Christopher, Traherne Thomas




Edgar Degas
Young 14 year old Dancer
Bronze and patina
Musee d'Orsay' Paris

Degas's dancers

Over half of Degas's paintings depict the young ballerinas who performed
between the main acts at the Paris Opera.
Although Degas painted the dancers in intimate behind-the-scenes
situations, he viewed them with a cool detachment.
Only one of Degas's ballet sculptures was exhibited (in 1881), and at the time
it was considered unusually realistic because Degas dressed the sculpture in real clothes.
This illustration shows a bronze sculpture of a young dancer, based on a number
of pencil sketches.



Edgar Degas
Musee d'Orsay

Paris Degas interpreted this subject in many different ways.
Here, the ballerina shines on her own before the other artists,
seen hazily in the background.





Degas was a regular attender of the cafe-concerts at Montmartre and the Champs-Elysees. At the Ambassadeurs, a cafe frequented by Toulouse-Lautrec, he made a number of pastel drawings. In The Cafe-Concert at the Ambassadeurs (1875-77), the spectators (ourselves included) and the orchestra are seated in shadow against the sparkling lights in the background where the entertainment is taking place. This arrangement, which could be regarded as voyeuristic, is repeated in his Orchestra of the Opera (1868-69). Here, our gaze is directed upwards over the heads of the musicians, towards the blurred, barely visible images of the performers on stage. Flickers of light illuminate the legs and tutus of the anonymous ballerinas. In contrast, the images in the foreground are sharp and obviously painted with meticulous care. Degas has included the composer Emmanuel Chabrier among the musicians.


Edgar Degas
The Cafe-Concert at Les Ambassadeurs
Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyons



Edgar Degas
Orchestra of the Opera
Musee d'Orsay, Pans





In Degas' work, harmony and beauty are systematically sacrificed to expression. A woman yawning or bent over her iron, or a young girl lacing up her ballet shoe, recreates an everyday attitude that, rather than telling us about the person, conceals her behind a mysterious veil. The figures are not disclosed to us; instead, they remain silent and aloof, beyond our reach.
In Degas' Singer with a Black Glove (1878), the gloved arm becomes the visual centre of the composition, creating a sense of instability in the figure depicted. The grimaces of Yvette Guilbert and the gestures of her hands say far more than a conventional portrait could about this unusual woman, who entertained at the cafe-concerts and who, "with her white dress, black gloves, and haunted face, could truly appear like a fragile figure evaporating from a bottle of ether" (Edmond de Goncourt).


Edgar Degas
Singer with a Black Glove
c. 1878
Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts





Edgar Degas:

The Rehearsal on the Stage


A look behind the scenes

Edgar Degas
The Rehearsal on the Stage



At his death in 1917, the eighty-three-year-old Edgar Degas left behind some 1200 paintings and sculptures, more than 300 of them depicting ballerinas: at the bar, at their toilet, resting, or rehearsing - witness the present work - on a half-lit stage. It was through Degas that ballet attained its renown as a subject of painting, though by Degas' time, the stage art itself was in dire need of innovation.
The history of ballet had begun some 300 years earlier in the form of a ceremonial courtly dance whose function was to demonstrate the glory of the sovereign. Only "when ballet became professional were the dancers joined by women. During the Romantic era, the female dancers became the centre of attraction, appearing to float across the stage, scorning gravity. The new technique of the toe dance made ballerinas more suited to typical Romantic parts, such as elves, spirits or fairies. Their male partners receded into the background, their main task from now on to support or lift the ballerinas, emphasizing the latters' lightness and grace.
The Romantic ballet was born in the 30s and 40s of the 19th century and, in Paris, was the dominant style even when Degas came to paint the present picture in 1873. In literature and theatre, Romanticism had been largely repudiated by more realistic modes, while in Italy, a choreographer had attempted to convert current events, like the construction of a tunnel through the Alps, into dance. No such development took place in Paris, however, where the theatre-going public stuck largely to what it knew.
Degas's exclusive preference for female dancers, too, conformed to contemporary taste. Eventually, helped by Tchaikovsky's music, ballet was given a new lease of life at St. Petersburg; but it was not until the 20th century that male dancers regained some of the recognition they had once enjoyed.
In 1873, when Edgar Degas painted this picture, "tout Paris" revelled in the romance of the ballet. But the elegance and grace of the ballerinas, who appeared to float across the stage, was not its only source of appeal. It was the done thing for a Parisian gentleman of leisure to maintain a "lia-son" at the theatre, while dancing offered many girls their only opportunity to escape from poverty. The painting The Rehearsal on the Stage■, measuring 65 x 81 cm, is now in the Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

"Long, lascivious legs"

Edgar Degas
The Rehearsal on the Stage

The lighmess of the Romantic technique allowed the ballerinas to lay aside all heavy clothing and shoes. Elves floated better without such unnecessary ballast: ballet shoes were now made without their formerly wide soles and heels, and the ballet costume itself was reduced to a sleeveless bodice and flared skirt of white muslin. The skirt billowed when the ballerina alighted, prolonging the illusion of her floating gently to earth. Originally calf-length, the skirt had shortened to the knee by Degas's day.
Ballerinas had now begun to reveal more of their bodies, especially their legs, covered only by thin tights. Though this favoured artistic expression, it was also seen as an affront to conventional morality; for it was considered indecent in the nineteenth century for ladies to show their legs. Heinrich Heine cites two English ladies who "were barely able to express their disgust at what met their eyes when the curtain rose and those wonderful, short-skirted ballerinas began a graceful, elaborate movement, stepping out with long, lovely, lascivious legs and, with a sudden bacchanalian leap, falling into the arms of the male dancers who came springing towards them ... Their busoms grew pink with indignation. 'Shocking! For shame, for shame!', they constantly groaned."
Understandably, few male spectators showed siens of outrage. Unlike women and girls, men were given more or less free rein to seek gratification for their erotic urges. For them, ballet took on a new meaning, and the pronounced tendency among 19th-century choreographers to bring ballerinas up to the footlights more frequently than their male colleagues surely cannot be ascribed solely to the artistic gain derived from the introduction of the toe dance.
The ladies in the boxes may occasionally have been consoled by the knowledge that their stage rivals were deemed unmarriage-able. From low-class backgrounds, with perhaps a laundress or seamstress as a mother, they were as likely as not to have grown up in a one-room flat at the back of some dingy close. The theatre offered one of the few opportunities to escape a life of poverty and misery. With luck, they would be accepted, at the age of eight or nine, into the Opera dance school, the Academic Royale. They made their first stage appearance at the age of 14 or 15, and retired 20 years later. Though a girl of mediocre talent might never be more than an ordinary dancer in the corps de ballet, earning no more on stage than she would as a seamstress, she nonetheless had a better chance as a ballerina of attracting the attentions of a wealthy gentleman. She was in dire need of his self-centred favours if she were to escape from hunger and her dingy close. Apart from anything else, male patronage could be advantageous in determining the outcome of professional rivalry between dancers.




Rear view of a career


Edgar Degas
The Rehearsal on the Stage



The biography of almost every 19th-century Parisian ballerina contains the name of a rich, and more or less powerful, patron. One example serves to illustrate many: that of Emma Livry and her mother. Emma's mother, an unsuccessful ballerina at the Paris Opera, had become the mistress of a baron; Emma was their child. The baron eventually left Emma's mother to marry a princess, and was replaced by a viscount. The viscount was said to have had a whole string of relationships with ballerinas. He "knew all the scandals and intrigues, was informed of all the storms in teacups that constantly shook this small, inward-looking world. He liked to intervene, too, taking sides, hoping to influence matters to further his own interests and, more importantly, those of his mistress."
He also exerted his influence to help Emma, the daughter of his mistress. He ensured that her debut in the corps de ballet did not go unnoticed, put in a good word for her with the director of the Opera, used his good offices in the imperial household, negotiated her contract himself, and even protected her against a series of intrigues designed to delay the premiere. In the end Emma Livry's performance in "La Sylphide" in 1858 was a sensational success; she was 16 years old at the time. She died at the age of 21, her short skirt set alight by a gaslamp behind the scenes.
Patronage of ballerinas was a pleasure-able diversion for gentlemen of leisure from traditionally affluent backgrounds. Since the latter were disinclined to be punctual, the ballet were not introduced before the second act. The Paris premiere of Richard Wagner's "Tannhauser", with ballet included in the first act, was booed out in 1861. Though not the only reason for the flop, premature entry of the dancers was certainly a major contributive factor.



The power of subscribers

Edgar Degas
The Rehearsal on the Stage


The ballerinas in Degas's painting are nameless, like the gentleman sitting on the chair. He may be the director or choreographer, or perhaps the especially privileged friend of one of the girls. The theatre itself is easily identified: the Grand Opera in the Rue Le Peletier. It was here that Emma Livry's star rose so briefly, and here, too, that Richard Wagner's Tannhauser flopped.
The theatre in the Rue Le Peletier had 1095 seats; it became the Grand Opera as a result of an assassination in 1821. The son of the French heir to the throne was attacked near the building in the Rue de Richelieu which had housed the opera hitherto. The injured man was carried into the theatre. Meanwhile, his friends sent for the Archbishop of Pans to administer the last sacrament to the dying man. However, the bishop agreed to enter the building only on condition that it was torn down afterwards. This was done - an impressive demonstration of the Church's power in its struggle against the theatre as an immoral institution.
The narrow boxes vaguely indicated behind the sitting gentleman were a characteristic feature of the new Grand Opera in the Rue Le Peletier. These boxes, built above rather than in front of the stage, were referred to as baignoires or boites tiroirs, in other words as "baths" or "drawers". They were reserved for the director, or for influential subscribers who were more interested in physical proximity than the aesthetic experience.
The power of subscribers had continually grown in the 19th century. The future of a theatre now depended less on the good will of a local ruler than on its ability to sell seats. Subscribers could rent a box, or a seat in the stalls (for men only), which, during the season, they occupied at least once a week. Their interest was in constant need of renewed stimulus, and in their attempt to provide it, theatres would occasionally seek recourse to methods that were less than artistic: in 1831 the Director of the Grand Opera allowed access to the Foyer de la Danse, the dancers' rehearsal room, to some of his more refined clientele. Degas would often sit there himself, sketching the scene. It was a large room with a golden frieze below the ceiling and imitation marble columns along the wall, a high mirror and the usual training bars, hardly comparable with those neon-lit, highly functional rooms with mirrors covering all four walls in which today's dancers practise their steps.
The Foyer de la Danse was open, during intervals and after the performance, only to the girls' mothers and certain male subscribers. The purpose of this was obvious. The modern equivalent might be the welcome-lounge of a massage parlour.
In October 1873 the theatre in the Rue Le Peletier was destroyed by fire. A new, magnificent building, the Palais Gamier, where ballets are still performed today, was opened in January 1875. A competition for the design of the new opera house was held in 1860. Both the text of the announcement and, ultimately, the building itself betrayed the social function of opera at the time: artistic performance seen as the appropriate ambience for the cultivation of social status and gratification of the male libido. Boxes, according to design recommendations, were to have an adjoining salon whither parties who wished to converse might withdraw. The plans were to include "drawers", too, which remained in use until 1917. The building was to have three separate entrances: one for the Emperor, who no longer existed after 1870, one for the subscribers and a third for the public. The broad staircase to the first floor, imitating the stairway at the Rue Le Peletier, had 63 steps. The much cosseted subscribers were not expected to alter their habits. They were provided with a special lounge for intervals, and the Foyer de la Danse was transformed into a palatial hall with chandeliers, stucco and the portraits of famous ballerinas. At the same time, however, the director raised the entry fee; only gentlemen who subscribed three evenings a week were allowed access.


Like looking through a keyhole


Edgar Degas
The Rehearsal on the Stage



Degas made the preliminary sketches for his painting in one of the front boxes, executing the painting some time later in his studio. By the time he painted The Rehearsal on the Stage, the theatre in the Rue Le Peletier had probably burned down. Like all contemporary stages, it was lit by dangerous, open gas flames. The lights were generally situated at the edge of the apron. Degas marks the footlights with a series of bright brushstrokes.
He was almost 40 at the time, but was not one of the ballerinas' lovers. On the contrary, he lived the life of a reclusive ascetic, rarely leaving his studio. He needed to be alone, remaining a bachelor, declaring, on one occasion: "A painter has no private life!"
Besides ballerinas, there were two other subjects he favoured: women at their bath and jockeys at the races. All three have one thing in common: movement. The details printed here make it clear that Degas was less interested in the ballerinas as individual characters than in their movement and gestures. Their faces are usually pale, anonymous. With regard to their gestures, what interested him most was what they did more or less subconsciously when they were not playing to the public. Degas paintings are full of women combing, washing and dressing themselves - automatically, as it were. "Up until now, the portrayal of nudidity has always presupposed exposure to the public eye", he wrote, "but the women in my paintings are simple, good people, thinking of nothing and preoccupied with nothing but their own bodies"; it was "like looking through a keyhole." On another occasion he referred to them as "animals in the act of washing themselves".
In the The Rehearsal on the Stage, too, the girls stand or sit about quite unself-con-sciously: yawning, scratching, stretching, utterly self-absorbed and attending to their own needs. There was a grace here which fascinated Degas. It was a quality he found in dancers who were resting between scenes, but also - on few and fortunate occasions, and with a different level of intensity - in those who were actually dancing: it was not the natural grace of a woman which interested him then, but a grace she had acquired by dint of artistry, the grace of a ballerina who is entirely engrossed in her art.

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Edgar Degas


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