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The Dance lesson by Degas of 1871 is one of the most beautiful works related to the world of dance by the artist French. And it is kept in one of the must-see museums in Paris, the Musée d’Orsay

Degas’ dance lesson. The subject of the work

The painting represents a typical ballet lesson in the nineteenth century. And the protagonists are the dancers of the Paris Opera in rehearsal. What makes it so interesting is the fact that it feels like you’re immersed in the work with them. From a corner of the room the viewer has the feeling of being there to observe the girls. This unusual point of view helps to create the illusion that the viewer is next to Degas, sharing his privileged access to the ballet class.

From the piano on the left to the end of the room the girls are lined up in a somewhat messy but perfect at the same time. So that individually we can observe them all. But the seemingly random composition had been meticulously arranged by Degas. The X-rays of the painting indicate that some figures were moved from one position to another until Degas reached the perfect degree of balance and the right atmosphere.

Degas’ dancers

Degas made several paintings of the young dancers of the Paris Opera who performed on stage. But he always preferred to represent them in the more relaxed setting of the rehearsal room, where he was a frequent visitor. Fascinated by their drills, he spent many hours observing and drawing the dancers as they practiced. And this being used to being present in these circumstances also gives the work a sense of intimacy in the scene, which you would not have in more formal situations such as the live show. 

Although the painting appears relaxed and informal, Degas had a constant habit of perfecting his work once he returned to his studio. In its apparent spontaneity and realism, the painting resembles a photograph. Photography that Degas knew well because he followed all the progress closely.

The Dance lesson by Degas. The details of the work

The dance master

At the center of the scene the dance master Jules Perrot leans on his stick perhaps to rest. The lesson seems to have just ended and the teacher is the protagonist of the scene. He is giving some indications, probably to the dancers on the threshold. And Jules Perrot was himself a famous dancer from Paris, so much so that in the opera he is wearing dancer’s shoes, which indicate that he was probably still active despite his age and role.

The dancer on the threshold

It is thought that the teacher is still giving the last indications to some of his students because of the position of the dancer on the threshold of the door, to the left of the work. The girl is in a classic dance position, while her classmates are relaxing. This is probably because for her the lesson is not over yet. She has a very focused expression and is likely to have been tested at that very moment. 

A curiosity related to this character of the opera is the fact that he is represented not only in Degas’ The Dance Lesson but also in his other works. He appears, for example, in Ballet Rehearsals on stage of 1874. Degas had in fact the habit of studying the poses of ballet for a long time and to propose both in his drawings and on canvas several times similar characters of which he was obsessed because of the hours of study. 

The dancer from behind in the foreground

Right in the foreground on the left a dancer with a large green bow has her back to us. He seems to be in a relaxed position, he is following like us what happens in the room. And its location makes the scene very informal. An X-ray analysis of the canvas showed that the dancer in an early version of the work was not from behind but in front and looked at the viewer. Degas’ choice to change the position is probably due to the fact that he wanted to focus our attention, like his, in the center of the room. Moreover, so the class seems to be unaware that we are watching, or at least everyone seems comfortable. It would not have achieved the same effect if the dancer had looked out of the picture. 

The big door

The view through the door frame draws our gaze beyond the rehearsal space to the next room. It enlarges the scene and gives a feeling of more space. But above all it makes us curious to find out what is on the other side. A double bass is located next to the door, so maybe there is a music lesson or a musician accompanies another lesson. The window in the adjacent room is an important source of light in the composition. In addition, the window makes us aware of the outside world while being an interior scene.

The small actions of the girls

Each dancer represented seems to be performing an action, in pairs or alone all are doing something. Some remarry, others chat. And among all some are really interesting. For example, a girl on the left playing with a pearl earring just behind the girl on the piano who is scratching her back. these kinds of small details related to the girls’ activities indicate that Degas spent a lot of time observing and imagining the actions of the dancers in the class. 

“Art is not what you see, but what you allow others to see”


The Dance lesson by Degas. The composition of the work

The magic that seems apparent of this work, has actually been much studied by Degas. The composition of the work is in fact based on lines that start from the right of the work, from the master and at various heights all converge on the left outside the canvas. This creates from the perspective point of view the idea that space is three-dimensional. And Degas also achieves this effect thanks to the use of many diagonals, for example, those of the floorboards or the line of the door frame. And even if we don’t realize it, even the heads of the dancers actually rest on diagonal lines. 

Degas and traditional painting

Degas’ dance class is a contemporary scene that pays homage to the style of traditional art. And Degas loves the techniques and drawings of ancient art. As a young man he spent a lot of time in the Louvre, studying and copying masterpieces by painters such as Velázquez. 

And the main themes of his works until the age of twenty were myths and historical events. Until he began to make pictorial scenes of Parisian society of the nineteenth (nineteenth) century, from horse racing to theater and ballet. His aim was to represent these scenes of everyday life with the same style as the great classical works. And so Degas manages to break the conventions of nineteenth-century painting and his work is strongly criticized by historians and collectors of French art of the time.

Degas and photography

Degas is a big fan of photography. He is studying this new technique and its tools. And he is especially fascinated by the final result and the representation through the camera. And Degas’ dance lesson is a clear example of this. We can see the influence of photography in this painting, particularly in the use of visually cutting the margins of the work. Part of the tutu of the girl sitting on the floor on the left is located outside the frame. This helps to create an air of spontaneity, as if the image has been taken rather than carefully composed. The right part of the painting is cropped in a similar way and the dancer with the blue bow seems to come out of the picture. 

Degas and the Impressionists

Degas is the only impressionist who is successful from the beginning and, although he remains rather detached from them, exhibits in their group exhibitions. Other Impressionists like him because he tries to convey a sense of movement and spontaneity in his work. 

In Degas’ The Dance Lesson, the girls seem to have been caught off guard and their gestures and expressions are truly natural. Degas achieves this effect thanks to his drawing skills and his sense of composition.
But it actually employs other tricks to suggest movement. For example, small bright red spots. Some are on the decoration of the hair of the girl in the first and on her fan. Others are on the teacher’s collar, and then in the background in the red dress of one of the characters and in the bands of the two dancers.

Edgar Degas. The history of the artist

Born in Paris into a wealthy and cultured family, Degas decided to become an artist at the age of 18 after studying law. He trained at the Academy of Fine Arts with Louis Lamothe, a former pupil of the classical painter French Ingres. Like many other French artists, his studies inspired him to visit Italy, where he lived for three years. 

In 1861 Degas met Édouard Manet who introduced him to the group of artists shortly after famous as the Impressionists. 

Degas was a very good draftsman and his works were of the highest technical quality. And although he exhibited on several occasions with the Impressionists, he actually chose not to be closely associated with them. Unlike most members of the group, Degas has little interest in landscapes and prefers to paint dancers, bathing women and racehorses. And above all, he prefers to work in his studio rather than outdoors.

Degas was interested in photography and was a great admirer of Muybridge, one of the pioneers in this field. From 1880, when his eyesight began to fail, Degas worked a lot with pastels and also made wax sculptures. 

Cover: Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, 1871–1874, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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