The Dancers of Degas

Ballerinas are to Degas as lilies are to Monet.

Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
—Edgar Degas.

Dancers on Set by Edgar Degas, c.1880_inset 1And “make us see” is what he does with exquisite aplomb. He renders the beauty of fleeting movement, of ballerinas in mid-performance, with a luminous quality. But he also captures the human side of ballerinas, in their simplest, most intimate moments—warming up, stretching at the bar, practicing positions, or talking in the dressing room.

At the ballet, Degas found himself. It satisfied his penchant for classical elegance and put to use his rigorous academic training from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris—one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious fine art schools.

He frequented the Palais Garnier—the home of the Paris Ballet and Opera, lurking in the wings and foyer hoping to befriend the influential patrons who might gain him access to the private world of ballerinas.

Mimed poetry, dream made visible.

Degas’s paintings of ballet performances capture the essence of what makes ballet special—the balance, poise, and precision of movement. A contemporary critic called ballet “mimed poetry, dream made visible.”

747px-Opera_Garnier_Stairway_2008Degas became a familiar sight for the young ballerinas—some poor, dreaming of becoming the princesses of the stage. One said he “used to stand at the top or bottom of the many staircases . . . drawing the dancers as they rushed up and down.” He noticed everything—from the most difficult of choreographed sequences to the smallest errors—making notes as he went.

In later life, Degas became a recluse, believing that “the artist must live alone, and his private life must remain unknown“. His eyesight was failing him and he spent his last years, almost blind, wandering the streets of his beloved Paris.

He wrote to a friend,

with the exception of the heart, it seems to me that everything within me is growing old in proportion, and even this heart of mine has something artificial. The dancers have sewn it into a bag of pink satin, pink satin slightly faded, like their dancing shoes.”

Like the dancing shoes, Degas himself faded away in September 1917, but his work lives on in brilliant color.

Listen to Steven Gutheinz as we marvel at the dancers of Degas.


The Dancing Class by Edgar Degas, 1871
The Dancing Class by Edgar Degas, 1871
Rehearsal of the Scene by Edgar Degas, 1872
Rehearsal of the Scene by Edgar Degas, 1872
Ballet School by Edgar Degas, 1873
Ballet School by Edgar Degas, 1873
The Ballet Class by Edgar Degas, 1874
The Ballet Class by Edgar Degas, 1874
The Rehearsal by Edgar Degas, c.1874
The Rehearsal by Edgar Degas, c.1874
The Rehearsal of the Ballet on Stage by Edgar Degas, 1874
The Rehearsal of the Ballet on Stage by Edgar Degas, 1874
Rehearsal on Stage by Edgar Degas, 1874
Rehearsal on Stage by Edgar Degas, 1874

Two Dancers in the Studio (also known as Dance School) by Edgar Degas, c.1875
Two Dancers in the Studio (also known as Dance School) by Edgar Degas, c.1875
Dancer Onstage with a Bouquet by Edgar Degas, c.1876
Dancer Onstage with a Bouquet by Edgar Degas, c.1876
Dancer on Point by Edgar Degas, c.1877
Dancer on Point by Edgar Degas, c.1877
Two Dancers on the Stage by Edgar Degas, 1877
Two Dancers on the Stage by Edgar Degas, 1877
Dancers Practicing at the Bar by Edgar Degas, 1877
Dancers Practicing at the Bar by Edgar Degas, 1877
Dancer Posing by Edgar Degas, c.1878
Dancer Posing by Edgar Degas, c.1878
Dancers by Edgar Degas, c.1878
Dancers by Edgar Degas, c.1878

The Dance Studio by Edgar Degas, c.1878
The Dance Studio by Edgar Degas, c.1878
Two Dancers Entering the Stage by Edgar Degas, c.1878
Two Dancers Entering the Stage by Edgar Degas, c.1878
Ballet Scene by Edgar Degas, 1879
Ballet Scene by Edgar Degas, 1879
The Dance Lesson by Edgar Degas, c.1879
The Dance Lesson by Edgar Degas, c.1879
Two Ballet Dancers by Edgar Degas - circa 1879
Two Ballet Dancers by Edgar Degas – circa 1879
Dancers on Set by Edgar Degas, c.1880
Dancers on Set by Edgar Degas, c.1880
Th Ballet Class by Edgar Degas, 1881
Th Ballet Class by Edgar Degas, 1881

Dancers in a Studio by Edgar Degas, c.1884
Dancers in a Studio by Edgar Degas, c.1884
The Pink Dancers, Before the Ballet by Edgar Degas, 1884
The Pink Dancers, Before the Ballet by Edgar Degas, 1884
The Ballet Dancers (also known as The Dressing Room) by Willard Leroy Metcalf - 1885
The Ballet Dancers (also known as The Dressing Room) by Willard Leroy Metcalf – 1885
Ballet Scene by Edgar Degas, 1893
Ballet Scene by Edgar Degas, 1893
Ballet Dancers by Edgar Degas, c.1895
Ballet Dancers by Edgar Degas, c.1895
Ballet Dancers in the Wings by Edgar Degas, 1900
Ballet Dancers in the Wings by Edgar Degas, 1900

Contains affiliate links


Sources and Further Reading

Degas and his Dancers—The Smithsonian.
Edgard Degas—Wikipedia.org

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David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.