Dictionary of Art and Artists


that Changed the World


  Lascaux Caves Manesse illuminated Massys Callot Friedrich Picasso
  Tutankhamen's tomb Lorenzetti Grunewald Rembrandt Constable Matisse
  Europa and Minotaur Karlstein Castle Baldung Claude Lorrain Delacroix Marc
  Banquet Tomb Limbourg brothers Altdorfer Velazquez Turner Kandinsky
  Pompeii Van Eyck Cranach Vermeer Ingres Monet
  Birth of Christianity Della Francesca Holbein Rigaud Manet Chirico
  Hagia Sophia Uccello Titian Watteau Burne-Jones Modigliani
  Book of Kells Mantegna Bruegel Canaletto Seurat Chagall
  St Benedict Botticelli Vicentino Boucher Van Gogh Kahlo
  Bayeux Tapestry Anonymous Arcimboldo Fragonard Toulouse-Lautrec Dali
  Donizo manuscript Durer El Greco Gainsborough Munch Ernst
  Liber Scivias Bosch Theodore de Bry John Trumbull Cezanne Hopper
  Carmina Burana Da Vinci Caravaggio David Gauguin Bacon
  Falcon Book Michelangelo Rubens Gros Degas Warhol
  Giotto Raphael Brouwer Goya Klimt  

From Lascaux to Warhol

Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truth,
passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius,
but never abandoned.

William Butler Yeats



Freezing Every Gesture

Light and effects



I speak of the past, for it seems to me that everything is growing older in me - except my heart. And even my heart has something artificial about it. The dancers have sewn it into a pink silk sachet, slightly faded pink silk, like their ballet slippers.

Edgar Degas, letter to the sculptor Albert Bartholome, 17 January 1886



Built between 1862 and 1865 near the Madeleine, the Paris Opera — then, the world's largest opera house — covers an area of 11,000 square metres. Behind an exuberant facade, decorated with allegorical figures, the auditorium seats 2,200. The artist Edgar Degas, who lived three streets away near rue Le Peletier, did not require a season ticket. By the 1860s, this witty and entertaining painter, who could also be stubbornly intransigent when he so desired, had discovered ballet as his genre. Because he knew several members of the orchestra, he had access to the sacrosanct world backstage. Nearly every day the Frenchman sat on or behind the stage. Early on he had become interested in motifs drawn from urban life, painting workaday scenes of women ironing, passers-by in the streets and men in bars, as well as the pleasures of the Parisian racecourse or circus scenes. However, Degas, who was the son of an aristocratic banker of Italian descent and a New Orleans Creole, found artistes and prostitutes common but intriguing. What the Moulin Rouge was to Toulouse-Lautrec, the rehearsal room with its ballerinas was to Degas.

In those days the Pans Opera Ballet — not to mention more illustrious names — was waning in the firmament of the Parisian cultural scene. Choreographers were running out of ideas and the public was not satisfied with what the Opera Ballet had to offer. But the quality of the productions was of no consequence to Degas, who was concerned with movement, speed and the enchantment of ballet. In his paintings, he captured the elegance and delicate grace of ballet with an unprecedented keenness of observation. Tragically, by 1870, his eyesight was beginning to fail. As if to record as much as he could on canvas before it was too late, Degas painted ever more feverishly to freeze every gesture, every pose of his ballerinas: dancing on points, performing pas de deux or taking their curtain call, their tutus a froth of effervescence. He was even more fascinated by what went on behind the scenes. The pictures in which he captured ballerinas pulling up their tights, or fiddling with the laces of their slippers, are like snapshots taken by a hidden camera. He was not above depicting the darker side of dancing: ballerinas at the bar rubbing their ankles because they hurt or resting their heads on their arms in sheer exhaustion. Degas knew how to make even such moments of weariness enchanting. He introduced yet another first to painting: the effects of modern lighting. He was the first painter to study and exploit the effects of the mixture of natural and artificial light, like that of the setting sun and gas lanterns. The result was a painted twilight as it had never been seen before.


Edgar Degas
Behind the Scenes


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