The offbeat eye of Edgar Degas

March 29, 2024 0 Comments

The Musée D’Orsay is big.  To make the best of your time you need to have a destination in mind.  So once inside it made sense to march straight for the Degas paintings on show.  Three of them took my eye. Though painted at different times over a period of maybe twenty years, they’ve much in common, and could hardly be by any other artist.

Edgar Degas, Le Défilé

The earliest of the three, painted between 1866 and 1868, in oil on paper on canvas, is called ‘Le Défilé’ (The parade, or Racehorses before the stands).  It shows racehorses preparing for an event.  The composition is strict and straightforward: the lines of the spectators and of the horses converge on a vanishing point right in the centre.  But, as often in Degas, there’s disruption.  A dun horse has broken away and strays across the perspective line, and in the distance a dark horse has taken fright and bolts to the right.  Smoke from distant chimneys also drifts right.  Degas further complicates the scene with long shadows, cast by the horses in the afternoon sunlight, and he’s not afraid to leave large flat expanses of sky and grass.

For all its conventional perspective, this is a painting about disjunction and separation, lack of coordination and absence of control.  Degas seems to have no interest in the whole point of going to the races – the tension, conflict and focussed purpose – and instead wants us to concentrate on the wayward and the centrifugal, animals and riders wandering, adrift, alone with themselves.  It’s a vision of what’s unfastened and free.

Edgar Degas, L’orchestre de l’Opéra

A few years later, around 1870, Degas painted ‘L’orchestre de l’Opéra’.  The Opéra was another of Degas’ familiar haunts.  This time we’re at a performance, not a preparation for an event, but again, Degas takes an unconventional angle, ‘setting his easel’ at the front of the audience, right next to the dark orchestra pit, with the lit stage above and beyond.  Above the dark foreground – Degas highlights the bassoon player’s right hand on the keys – is a tiered array of musicians’ heads, set at all kinds of angles, like a visual equivalent of a musical score.  They’re painted in great detail, like portraits.  In fact, they are portraits.  The central bassoonist can be identified as Désiré Dihou, a friend of Degas and commissioner of the painting, and the cellist is Louis-Marie Pilet.

On the brightly lit stage, in the top third of the painting, music turns into movement, and realism to impressionism.  The rhythmic interplay of the dancers’ arms and legs alternate with their pink and blue tutus, which Degas paints with a light, sketchy translucence.  Typically, he cuts off all but the bottom half of the stage (and the dancers’ heads), accentuating the magic otherness of the scene.  (At the far left, in a comical, ‘magic realism’ touch, the head of the composer Emmanuel Chabrier peeps out from a box.)  The overall effect is of photographic fidelity contrasted with playful fantasy.  Buttoned-up men and expressive girls.   The two worlds collide where the head of the double bass intrudes into the dancing scene.

This may be one of the earliest appearances of the ballet stage in a Degas painting.  In the 1870s and 1880s the ballet was almost a second home for Degas, and dancers one of his favourite subjects.

Edgar Degas, Danseuses montant un escalier

The third painting was made between 1886 and 1890.  Its title is ‘Danseuses montant un escalier’ (Dancers climbing the stairs).  It’s one of the most radical of Degas’ ballet paintings.  He avoids all the obvious views of the dancers that another artist might have chosen.  This isn’t even a rehearsal, the subject of many of his better-known earlier works (only a fifth of the ballet paintings show dancers on stage).  Rather, it’s a pre-rehearsal scene – like ‘Le Défilé’, a preparation or preliminary, a picture of a fleeting moment that might have been snatched with a smartphone camera.  The dancers gather, and the latecomers climb up from below on a steep staircase.  Degas divides his long horizontal canvas into two unequal halves.  Most of the left half is empty wall, in two mottled shades, yellow and red.  Two dancers, below, are chatting, while a third, in the centre of the painting is just stepping on to the rehearsal room floor.  She looks ahead towards five fellow-dancers, set further back in the room.  They’re adjusting their dresses and practising their steps, undirected by their teacher.

Everything’s in flux, except for the figure of the central dancer, poised between stair and room. Degas sketches the other girls, and the clothes of all of them, lightly and impressionistically, to convey the sense of movement, and of expectation.  On the other hand, the big expanses of empty space, the wall on the left and the answering floor on the right, giving a double-diagonal of figures and space, lend the picture a stability and monumentality it wouldn’t otherwise have.  The scene is a momentary one, caught delicately between two moving worlds, but complete in itself.

In his life, Degas may have played Mr Grumpy, and he certainly held some conservative and unpleasant opinions.  In his art, he was a restless experimenter, never content with the conventional, always eager to take an oblique view and capture a different moment.

Leave a Reply