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Degas’s The Dance Class depicts movement through the use of brushwork and the “cut-off” composition of the painting, creating a realistic snapshot of dancers in motion. During the Impressionist movement, the goal for Impressionists was to create the impression of a single moment, not caught in time but passing through time. There are ways to capture moments so that the figures seem frozen in time, but that is not Degas’ intention. He presents his subjects as if they are still moving, and the viewer has simply walked in and glimpsed the scene. As Degas searched for novel ways to show the human form in movement, he found that ballerinas made superb models to paint. His lively brushwork and light, bright colors were typical of the Impressionist movement. Degas applied the oil paint to the canvas in thin, yet visible brush strokes, creating soft and rounded edges to give the painting an overall blur. When the viewer stands at a reasonable distance, their eyes see a mix of individual marks of colors that blended optically. “This method created more vibrant colors than colors mixed as physical paint on a palette” (Gersh-Nesic). Degas also blends colors alongside each other to prevent any harsh lines. The overall blur that Degas creates is how he depicts movement throughout many of his paintings. Another method Degas uses to create movement is cropping his subjects at the edges to give the effect of a room filled with movement. A “cut-off” composition is “where the subject is chopped off at the frame” (Edgar Degas). The cut-off composition contributes to creating motion throughout the piece by illustrating that the painting is not posed and centered. Degas opposed “normal artistic logic [stating] that the subject should be in the center of a painting… Degas’ true gift is his ability to capture what could have been awkward frozen scenes of motion and making them feel alive” (Muscato). On all sides of the painting, Degas cleverly chose to cut off the scene, causing each ballerina to look as if Degas took a snapshot of the dancers and paused them mid-movement. This gives the audience a sense of universal movement throughout the piece. By creating a blur of motion with Degas’s brushwork and cropping figures around the edges of the painting, The Dance Class clearly portrays overall movement throughout the piece.
Through his techniques of perspective and unique angles, Degas creates a controversial painting of ballerinas in ungainly positions that appears to the human eye as a snapshot of a glimpse into a secret rehearsal room. Degas was heavily influenced by his early years of photography and applied it to many of his paintings. Many Impressionists were inspired by photography, since “photography managed to help generate another sentiment about art: it should try to capture a single moment” (Muscato). In contrast to former art that captured still or posed scenes, “Impressionists did not want to capture a fixed moment in time, they wanted to create the impression of a moment passing through time” (Muscato). Although Degas was influenced by the old masters of art, Degas deliberately avoided the academic art of borrowing poses from classical statues or old master paintings. Instead, he preferred capturing off-guard moments from unique perspectives, like he does in The Dance Class. In this painting, the audience is at eye level with the dance master, Jules Perrot, giving the viewers a sense of authority and are unnoticed by the ballerinas. The authenticity and realism of the scene creates the impression that the artist has been invited to quietly peep into this room alongside him, unobserved by those within. The viewer generally hides within the shadows, watching the fluid movements of the young ballet dancers “through-the-keyhole.” “Degas has depicted the dancers from unusual angles and viewpoints often painting glimpses either from onstage or backstage in a style quite radical for those times” (Edgar Degas).This specific scene is not something that everyone would be able to view during this era. Dancers would automatically be classified as elegant to ungainly, not earning the fame they received due to the odd positions they rest in and ungraceful things they do. The perspective Degas uses creates the idea that the rehearsal room is much larger than it is, showing figures cut off on the sides of the painting due to the perspective of seeing through someone else’s set of eyes. Through the use of unique perspective and angles, Degas draws his audience into this rehearsal room of the Paris Opéra and in this privileged position we can contemplate The Dance Class and the lack of elegance in dancers all the more.
Degas creates a graceful illusion by using light and pastel colors, soft edges, and a blurred application of paint to the dancer’s tutus. At first glance, the audience automatically expresses how beautiful The Dance Class appears to be. They see the fluffy tulle skirts the dancers are wearing and classify them as graceful. When the audience takes a closer look, they see all of the outrageousness occurring. “It’s interesting that despite the fact that we assume right off that the ballerinas are beautiful and graceful, many of the ballerinas, if not all of them, with the exception of the one who’s performing, are really rendered in an ungainly way” (Zucker). The dancers in the painting are anything but graceful. “Most have their faces obscured or their backs to us, one has her fingers in her mouth, while the dancer in the immediate foreground even appears to be hiking up her tutu” (The Dance Class by Edgar Degas). As the viewer’s eyes move across the painting towards the right corner, the viewer sees girls sitting down in ungraceful positions, fiddling with their necklaces, and leaning against the wall, clearly conveying the amount of disinterest they contain at the moment. Degas chose to illustrate the ballerinas in this way to portray that humans are humans. Degas “examines these citizens in their most ordinary state – tired, often disinterested, and ultimately, inelegant,” a state of being every human experiences (The Dance Class by Edgar Degas). It seems that when they are not on stage they are very gawky, but when they are, they undergo a transformation into beautiful, elegant dancers. “The artist explores the form of the ballerina in her brief moments of respite, when her elegance is superseded by the ungraceful realism of human gesture” (The Dance Class by Edgar Degas). Degas did not want to paint the grace and beauty of dance alone, but preferred to paint what occurs behind the scenes. He was fascinated with the idea of creating a graceful illusion in the painting, creating it so that the viewer takes a closer look to see the hard work and least graceful gestures that go on before the elegant piece is complete and performed.
Unlike Degas’s The Dance Class, the dancer on the stage and the dancers in the wings of the stage in The Star all have a very graceful, elegant mien, as well as. Both paintings are viewed from unique angles, depicting overall movement throughout the pieces. The Star, one of Degas’s famous paintings, was created four years after The Dance Class, when Degas became preoccupied by a new method of art. He would use pastel to create the fluffy and soft looking texture to the dancer’s skirts and to create motion throughout the painting. Many aspects make this painting so famous and unique, such as the perspective from above the stage, granting us “an even fuller picture of the life of a dancer by being able to witness what is happening in the wings as well” (The Star). Degas took a rather different approach to The Star than he did to The Dance Class. “For ten years Degas concentrated on painting dancers and ballerinas in rehearsal and resting,” but in The Star Degas depicts the gracefulness of a ballerina as she performs her “pas seul,” or dance solo, towards the orchestra pit (The Star). “The Star is living out her bliss and it flows out from the painting to create this same feeling of pure joy in us as we look at the painting,” giving the audience a different feeling than The Dance Class (The Star). When the audience views The Dance Class, they awaken to reality of dancers, realizing they carry the inevitable humanly trait on ungainliness like everyone else. Another fascinating aspect of The Star, is the unique angle the piece is painted from. Degas enjoyed experimenting with different perspectives and angles, and he displays this throughout his pieces. The perspective of The Star is from an angle above the stage, giving the audience a full view of the dancer and those waiting inside of the wings. This gives the viewer a sense of what occurs behind the scenes of dance but not to the extent of The Dance Class. The Star conceals the hard work, disinterest, and ungainliness of ballerinas, as opposed to The Dance Class which displays the reality of the typical dancer’s life. Although both pieces marvelously depict unique perspectives and overall movement, The Dance Class illustrates Impressionist ideals in a finer way due to the realism of the piece.
In comparison to Renoir’s The Dancer, Degas uses innovative ways to depict dancers such as painting their bodies in motion by using peculiar angles to capture them in awkward situations, while Renoir painted the common, formal portrait. Pierre Auguste-Renoir was a French Impressionist painter who “is best known for his paintings of bustling Parisian modernity and leisure” (Pierre-Auguste Renoir). Along with the other Impressionists, Renoir is well known for his use of bold colors and light and shade in his paintings. Aside from his common paintings of Parisian life, he also painted formal portraits, including The Dancer. In this oil painting, Renoir uses a variety of brushstrokes, “ranging from the delicate brushstrokes that define the dancer’s face to the loose, almost careless application of paint in the picture’s background“ (The Dancer). The range from defined to loose brushstrokes is a style that is consistent throughout Impressionist paintings, causing it to be a key characteristic of the art of the era. “In contrast to Degas, whose interest lay in depicting dancers in repose, captured in unguarded and unselfconscious moments, Renoir chose to paint a more formal portrait” (The Dancer). Elaborate + Transition. Unique perspectives and angles were evident in Degas’s pieces, which Renoir seemed to lack. “Both the painting’s scale and the figure’s prominence (placed in the very center of the composition, [the dancer] dominates the entire canvas) hark back to traditional portraits, lending this work a gravity somewhat at odds with the painting’s modern subject” (The Dancer). Degas depicted universal movement while the audience went unnoticed, while The Dancer is in a still, posed position looking at the audience and acknowledging them. Degas’s paintings “are not traditional portraits, but studies that address the movement of the human body, exploring the physicality and discipline of the dancers through the use of contorted postures and unexpected vantage points,” as the viewer can see when compared to Renoir’s portrait of The Dancer (Schenkel). Impressionism is about the human body in motion and experimenting with different perspectives, all straying away from classical ideals. Degas’s The Dance Class demonstrates all of the key factors of Impressionism, while Renoir’s The Dancer illustrates former art eras’ characteristics and ideals.
Degas was greatly influenced by the unusual and ungainly angles Hokusai captured in Hokusai’s Manga and applied the drawings to his interests to create universal movement throughout The Dance Class. In 1853, Japan re-opened their trade ports with Europe, and Westerners became obsessed with Japanese art. The influence of Japanese art, fashion, and aesthetics on Western culture became known as “Japonisme.” Impressionists “often produced their own graphic work that, in composition, color, and imagery borrowed directly from the Japanese aesthetic” (Japanesque). Japanese art was the beginning of the contemporary subject matter in art while using bold lines and colors. Katsushika Hokusai was a prominent Japanese artist and his prints were very popular and influential among Western Impressionists, especially Degas. Degas was intrigued by the liveliness and movement in Hokusai’s Japanese prints, in contrast to the more conservative style of art in Europe. Degas looked largely to Hokusai’s Manga, a series of prints depicting unique positions of people doing daily activities. Some of Hokusai’s Manga were sketches of figures squatting in ungainly positions, in a power stance pose, in an abstract looking arabesque, and a figure leaning to one side. Degas took these figures and used them as a reference for his paintings of dancers. In The Dance Class, Degas directly copied some of Hokusai’s figures and applied it to the subject matter he was painting. In the center of the painting, there is a ballerina in a fully extended attitude arabesque, very similar to Hokusai’s drawing of a figure in a distorted arabesque (Figure ). As the viewer’s eyes move across The Dance Class and toward the top of the painting, they will notice a dancer standing on the risers in a power stance position, with her hands on her hips, similar to Hokusai’s interpretation of a power stance position (Figure ). Directly below the “power stance dancer,” are two girls sitting on the riser. The dancer on the right is in a position comparable to Hokusai’s figure of a person squatting (Figure ). Lastly, above and slightly to the left of the girl sitting, is a ballerina leaning against a wall, similar to the figure leaning to the left in Hokusai’s Manga. When the audience compares The Dance Class and Hokusai’s Manga, it is evident that Degas looked to Hokusai for inspiration for his pieces. Asymmetry is also an important factor of Japonisme, which Degas incorporates in his painting. “The bottom right is completely empty and it’s doing a kind of East-Asian or Japanese asymmetry. Not only asymmetry but also a kind of flat plain” (Zucker). Lastly, the most evident component of Japonisme in The Dance Class, is the movement fulfilling the painting. The movement of the dancers is the main focus of the painting. Degas wanted to show us that the ballerinas were not posing for a picture, but that the painting is a snapshot of the dancers in motion.
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