Dance Through The Eyes of an Artist

I recently took a weekend vacation to catch up on visiting some local museums across town. It is something I love to do and I can never do it enough. There is nothing like “the museum experience” and it always makes me feel like I’m getting outside myself and doing something very special. As a person who creates art of various forms, it is always inspiring to see what others have created before me. Often times, I come away with new perspectives or even ideas for new art yet to come. I also encourage you, my fellow dancers, to take breaks and create your own space for appreciation of other art forms. You may find yourself more enthused and dedicated to the art of dance, after a little stint of viewing art of other forms!

As I was strolling around viewing one masterpiece after another, I started focusing on one particular artist’s paintings as if they were speaking to me. The paintings were alive and focused, and the artist had an uncanny way of representing dance life in his “dance paintings.” As I was seeing one after another of these dance paintings, I became interested in finding out more about the artist. And what I found out, is what I’m sharing with you. The name of this artist/painter is Edgar Degas. He was born in Paris, France in 1834 and died in Paris, France in 1917. Edgar Degas was a French artist and very famous for his paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings. He is especially identified with the subject of dance. In fact, over half of his work represents dancers.

Why was this man so fascinated with dance? Was he a dancer, was someone in his family a dancer? Did he have a mother/girlfriend/wife who was a dancer? None of the above. Let’s proceed a little further and the answers will come. First of all, Degas is known for being one of the founders of Impressionism. Now this is a term he never liked and didn’t agree with. He preferred to be called a Realist. Impressionism refers to a kind of painting using rather small, thin, yet visible brush strokes that came to be stylistic in the 1870 – 1880’s. There is emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities, accentuating the effects of the passage of time. Included in this category is movement as a crucial element of human perception, experience and unusual visual angles. Critics give this honor to Degas in the way he portrayed his characters in his paintings and that is why he is referred to as one of the great founders of Impressionism. As I stated before, Degas vehemently denied he was Impressionistic. He explained, “No art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is a result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament, I know nothing.” In fact, as I also already stated, he preferred to be called a Realist. A Realist in art attempts to represent subject matter truthfully, without artificiality and avoiding artistic conventions, implausible, exotic and supernatural elements. That he did well!

I can see what Degas means about his style of painting. I personally believe Degas was right about himself but I can also see what the critics say about the Impressionistic side of him as well. Degas was excellent at portraying movement, as was so often depicted in his paintings of dancers. In his career, Degas wanted to be a history painter, as he had full academic training and close study of classic art. However, he did change course in his early thirties by bringing the traditional methods of a history painter to contemporary subject matter. He became a classical painter of modern life. He began to change the way he saw his subjects and with that came change in his style and technique. Dark colors he used gave way to his use of vivid colors and bold brushstrokes. He learned to paint in “snapshot” mode, as if he was freezing moments of time. He always portrayed moments, people and time accurately, imparting a sense of movement. He also developed a keen interest in new techniques of photography and incorporated it into his paintings. For example, in 1872, he created Musicians in the Orchestra, (shown below). In this famous and profound piece, he was masterful at blurring the distinction between portraiture and genre pieces. Degas’s style always reflects his deep respect and admiration for the old masters of art. He was a collector of Japanese prints, whose compositional principles influenced his work.

Now back to why did Degas paint so many dancers (which got me interested in the first place)? To begin with, his mother died when he was 13 years old. Degas was raised by his father and grandfather. He never danced, had no interest in dance except for painting women who danced. He was fascinated with painting “women at work,” in other words, women doing their jobs in their work environment in various professions. From there, he started painting women who were dancers. In many paintings, dancers were shown backstage or in rehearsal, emphasizing their status as professionals doing a job. So, we know his mother was not a dancer. He had no girlfriends or even a wife. He was quoted as saying, “The artist must live alone, and his private life must remain unknown.” Okay, he was a confirmed bachelor till the day he died, but why did he paint so many dancers? Here is the answer to that question. After his father and grandfather died, Degas had a brother that had money problems and went into deep debt. Degas decided to help his brother and sold all of his beautiful art collections, his house and everything he owned. As Degas continued to paint, he found that the paintings that sold for the most money were always paintings of the dancers! People loved his ability to paint with a hint of narrative. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was supposedly his greatest admirer.

Degas’s paintings, pastels, drawings and sculptures are displayed in many museums all over the world. Degas took great pride in creating sketches of everyday life and activities with bold color experimentation. His work may have crossed many stylistic boundaries but he will always be recognized as an important artist and will forever be labeled “One of the founders of Impressionism.”

Thought Of The Week:

“In art, nothing should look like chance, not even movement” – Edgar Degas


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Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website