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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the February 19, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Shared Joys of Dance

Edgar Degas loved the dance. Over his long lifetime

he loved it in its every aspect and recorded his devotion in hundreds

of heart-stopping drawings, paintings, and sculptures. His love, in

turn, engendered a vision and a devotion to the dance among the many

who saw his pictures. In the 1930s, when my mother was an art student

in London, Degas was the sine qua non of figure drawing. As

I toured the big new exhibition, "Degas and the Dance," at

the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I began to suspect that Degas’ evocative

pastels of dancers at work and at rest were the likely reason my mother,

a non-dancer, brought me into the ballet studio at age five.

"Degas and the Dance," which opened in Philadelphia on February

12 and remains on view through May 11, is a cooperative venture that

was seen at the Detroit Institute of the Arts beginning last fall.

Philadelphia has taken up this blockbuster show with characteristic

gusto. The Pennsylvania Ballet has commissioned a new work in its

honor, the museum hosts jazz evenings every Friday at "Cafe Degas,"

and special weekend hotel and museum packages are offered. (See the

museum website at

The exhibition features more than 140 individual works, but opens,

tantalizingly, with just two. The entry room contains a single pink

pointe shoe, a 19th-century silk ballet slipper found in Degas’

studio after his death. Paired with this, and holding pride of place,

is the Philadelphia Museum’s own painting "The Ballet Class"

(1878-80), a classroom scene of young students dominated by the frumpy

figure of a patient stage mother reading her newspaper.

"Degas and the Dance" is curated by Richard Kendall, an independent

art historian who has specialized in aspects of Degas’ work, and dance

historian Jill DeVonyar. The British-trained Kendall, now associated

with the Clark Art Institute, made his mark on Degas studies in the

late 1980s with his exhibition, "Degas: Images of Women,"

shown at the Liverpool Tate. This was followed in 1991 by the book

"Dealing With Degas," co-edited with Griselda Pollock, composed

of essays on issues of feminism and art history and the politics of


Kendall and DeVonyar, who led the press a tour of the exhibition,

make an unlikely, but clearly complementary pair. Kendall, in corduroy

trousers and a gray fleece, is almost stereotypically disheveled and

frank. The young DeVonyar, in silver tunic and black slacks, carries

herself like the dancer she was. She earned her B.A. in art history

at SUNY Purchase in 1990 and also studied at Columbia.

From the curators we learned that much of the received wisdom surrounding

Degas oeuvre is outdated or just plain wrong. Together the

curators have created a sequence for the show that tells a more up-to-date

story about Degas and his world. Dancers make up more than 50 percent

of Degas’ abundant artistic output — at least 600 individual works.

Beyond the small entry room, the big gallery spaces open up and proclaim

the show’s themes: "The Private World of the Dance," "Degas

as Portraitist," "The Classroom," "On Stage,"

"In the Wings," "The Movements of the Greeks," and

a phenomenal room of late works presented under the title, "Orgies

of Color." A complimentary audio tour (which I didn’t hear) is

included with admission.

First and foremost, curators Kendall and DeVonyar have uncovered new

evidence that emphasizes and extends Degas’ attachment to the Paris

Opera, rooting it in the earliest years of his career and pushing

it into the late decades of his life. Their 300-page illustrated catalog

accompanies the show but also stands independently of it. As Kendall

explains, the compendium of research is designed to last. It offers

a thoroughgoing examination of Degas’ relationship with dance and

the dance world of the Paris Opera ballet in the second half of the

19th century.

Born in 1834, Degas came from an aristocratic family

(formerly known as De Gas). His father was a banker, but upon his

father’s death in the 1870s, the family was in debt and Degas found

himself in the socially ambiguous position of having to work for a

living. Contrary to prevailing notions, he was obliged to support

himself and settle family debts through his work as a painter.

The "painter of dancers," as Degas became known early in his

career, was an artist of the modern urban experience. The show’s first

themed room, "The Private World of the Dancer," is one of

the best. And as Kendall describes it, this is no idealized fantasy

but "a story about human beings working in the dance world."

In this first room of drawings and pastels of individual dancers,

often exhausted or lost in thought, we see how Degas’ brilliant figure

drawing was built from classical training. Working in the studio,

from sketches and from models, he manipulated his drawing at will

in the service of realism, creating illusions of immediacy, even of

awkwardness. Technically, he was an innovator. He invented the monotype,

worked wonders in pastel, and gave some of his oils the scrumbled

surface of pastel. Kendall gets it right when he calls him "a

technically promiscuous artist."

As I followed this expansive show from one gallery to the next, I

was surprised to discover one particularly lively dancing figure or

another reappear in paintings many years after its first appearance.

Like a frugal cook, Degas preserved his favorite figures to insert

in his subsequent meditations on the dance, in a seemingly tireless

drive to "get it right."

The exhibition immerses us in this community of working women who

share their days, share space, and their common enterprise — performance.

We meet stage mothers who shepherd their daughters to classes, rehearsals,

and into suitably profitable liaisons. The only men we encounter are

dance masters at work and the shadowy presence of the opera habitues.

Degas’ paintings, rife with dynamic points of view, tension, and telling

contemporary detail, speak of the modernity of Parisian life in the

late-19th century. The show’s curators describe the artist’s project

as the "radical reinvention of current visual modes and conventions."

Included in the show is Degas’ widely exhibited but still galvanizing

"Little Dancer, Aged 14," made of bronze but embellished with

a cotton skirt and faded satin hair ribbon. The two-thirds life-size

statuette was created in 1879 and exhibited in its original wax form

in 1881 in the sixth Impressionist exhibition. After his death it

was among the many wax sculptures cast in bronze by Degas’ heirs,

possibly to settle debts. Because more than 25 posthumous casts of

the work exist — including one in London, one in the collection

of the Philadelphia Museum, and another at the Met — many of us

feel as if we grew up with this "Little Dancer." The curators

also take pains to chronicle the story of the work’s model, the young

dance student Marie van Goethem.

Girls began training to work in the ballet at age six or seven, when

they were known as "petits rats." Their training and rehearsals

took place six days a week. Often required to arrive early and leave

late at night after a performance, they received little or no other

schooling. As Theophile Gautier remarked in 1840: "They can’t

tell the difference between a beetroot and an oak tree; they only

see trees that are painted, unlucky things!"

The Paris Opera, where almost all these paintings, drawings, and pastels

are set, was home of the national ballet and the national opera, twin

companies that appeared together in elaborate stage productions. These

renowned shows were described by a British contemporary journalist

as the site of "scenic and terpsichorean splendours." During

the years that Degas was most actively involved in the subject —

the 1870s and 1880s — the Opera employed 7,000 people and maintained

a permanent corps de ballet of 200 dancers. In addition to the shared

productions, full-length ballets such as "La Source," "La

Maschera," and "Coppelia" also premiered at the Paris


Research by the curators, particularly into the history of the dance

and its social context, has established information about the individual

dancers whom Degas befriended and the actual productions he saw or

watched take form. Degas was deeply musical and an admirer of the

opera. The curators identify for us portraits of the artist’s friends

that appear in his paintings among the spectators and pit orchestra

musicians. Degas attended the opera three or four times a week, and

by examining the opera attendance records, the curators tell us that

he saw Gounod’s Faust 11 times, Verdi’s "Rigoletto" 15 times,

and Reyer’s "Sigurd" an incredible 37 times.

Over Degas’ lifetime, the opera occupied two very different

theaters. The first, on the rue Le Peletier, was known as the birthplace

of the Romantic ballet, but had already been deemed obsolete when

it burned in 1873. In 1885 it was replaced by the still impressive

Palais Garnier, true to its name, a palace of gilt, mirrors, and conspicuous

display. However, as the curators explain here, Degas never really

took to the "new" opera, and throughout his life, set most

of his stage and rehearsal scenes amid the architecture of the long-lost

rue Le Peletier.

Among the special features of both opera houses, and raised to glittering

heights at the 1875 Palais Garnier, was the Foyer de la danse, a glittering

private room where dancers practiced and rubbed shoulders with lovers

and admirers before, during, and after the performance.

Most significant among these back-stage denizens in the Foyer were

the abonnes, members of the exclusive — and exclusively

male — group of season subscribers. For a significant investment

(akin to a country club membership), the subscription gave these men,

dressed always in formal black tailcoat and top hat, access to the

backstage areas of the theater and hence to the dancers. They often

appear in these paintings, at the margins — anonymous dark forms

observing and influencing the motion of the flocks of tulle-clad dancers.

We learn from the show’s catalog that from 1885 to 1892 Degas had

an abonne’s opera subscription for three nights a week.

Whether or not the girls and women of the Paris Opera engaged in prostitution

remains a thorny question. Kendall accepts that most stage mothers

hoped for a supportive match; but dancers also married other opera

workers. The notion that the dancers were low-born and sexually available

is one that was actually cultivated in the press of the day, perhaps

as a defense against these women’s entrepreneurial instincts.

Degas himself was an artist who seems to have been more interested

in Paris’ lively and insatiable sex trade than he was in having sex.

Contemporary viewers (and buyers) would have recognized the subjects

of his compelling portraits of laundresses and shopgirls as being

available for casual prostitution. And the sites of so many of his

works were, according to art historian Eunice Lipton, "all part

of the notorious sexual market-place of the city." Degas’ powerful

monotype series of scenes inside a Paris brothel was not shown publicly

during his lifetime.

"Degas and the Dance" includes a panoply of Degas’ small sculptures,

most created as studies for his paintings during in the 1800s. At

the time of his death, more than 80 wax sculptures of dancers, bathers,

and horses were found in his studio. In 1918 his heirs commissioned

Adrien Hebrard to reproduce 73 of the waxes in bronze in a casting

process designed to save the originals. When these bronzes were exhibited

in 1921, Mary Cassatt wrote: "I believe he will live to be greater

as a sculptor than as a painter." Her point is no less true today.

Fleshing out the context of Degas’ dancers are such items as a first

edition of the Italian dance instructor Carlo Blasis’s 1820 "Elementary

treatise upon the theory and practice of the art of dancing" and

a series of monotypes Degas made (but which were not used) as illustrations

for the backstage ballet novel "La Famille Cardinal."

This final room of the exhibition holds works dating from Degas’ last

productive years, from 1890 to 1905 (he died in 1917). It is titled

"Orgies of Color," an expression that Degas used in 1899 when

he invited a friend and fellow artist to look at his most recent work.

This gallery — which today we would probably call a "riot

of color" — constitutes the show’s crowning touch. Among its

glories is a large pastel of Russian dancers, its colors, we are told,

inspired by the Louvre’s 16th-century Venetian paintings and the innovations

of such contemporaries as Cezanne and Gaugin. In a final surprising

argument, made more fully in the catalog, Kendall suggests that Matisse’s

well-known and well-loved "Dance" of 1909 (in the collection

of the Museum of Modern Art) may have been the younger artist’s homage

to the French master, Edgar Degas.

Such homage is well-deserved. A mother, whether or not she’s an artist,

can try nudging her children in all sorts of directions; she never

knows where it might lead. I never imagined I would thank Degas for

having been nudged in such a rewarding one.

— Nicole Plett

Degas and the Dance, Philadelphia Museum of Art,

Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street, Philadelphia, 215-763-8100.

$20; $17 seniors & youth; $10 child. Complimentary audio tour. For

tickets by phone, call 215-235-SHOW; or go to

Show continues through Sunday, May 11.

Cafe Degas, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin

Franklin Parkway at 26th Street, Philadelphia, 215-684-7506. Jazz

by the Janet Barron trio, cash bar, wines and appetizers, and tours

of "Degas and the Dance." $10 museum admission. Friday

nights, February 21 to May 9, beginning at 5 p.m.

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