For all that they engage the senses, evoking the colour and texture of tutus, and the rhythmic thump of feet on floorboards, Degas’s ballerinas are far from idealised, emphasising instead the unrelenting physicality of the dancer’s life. In moments of repose, they stretch or scratch, frown and adjust their shoes, or sometimes just rest their heads in their hands, their aching legs thrust in front of them as if this might offer temporary relief.
For Degas (1834-1917), the dancers provided an endless resource, allowing him to study every imaginable human posture and gesture, the contrast between performance and rehearsal, artifice and reality providing an infinite human drama. His fascination with the ballet and other aspects of Paris life, from its seedy bars, the jockeys at the racecourse and laundresses and milliners at work, took hold in the 1870s, and Degas was one of a number of artists who looked to contemporary life as an alternative to the rarefied subject matter favoured by the Academy.
Highly conservative, the state-sponsored Académie des Beaux-Arts encouraged artists to produce the kind of large-scale narrative paintings, usually with historical or biblical subject matter, that dominated the Salon. In the mid to late 19th century, the influence of this annual exhibition was unparalleled, and through it the Academy ensured the primacy of its favoured style. Even so, by 1863 the Academy’s monopoly on French artistic life was under serious threat. That year, a record number of paintings were rejected by the Salon and were exhibited instead at a Salon des Refusés, the precursor to the Impressionist exhibitions that Degas took part in some years later.
Despite his avant-garde tendencies, Degas had received an academic training, and early drawings finely rendered in pencil reveal his debt to old masters like Ingres, Botticelli and Michelangelo, and his early ambitions to be a history painter. While today we take his interest in colour and the evocation of movement, along with his choice of ‘lowlife’ subject matter as evidence of his Impressionist affiliations, Degas rejected the label, declaring himself to be anything but. Instead, Degas decried working en plein air, describing his work as measured and carefully planned, far from the spontaneous naturalism advocated by his Impressionist colleagues, and more closely aligned to the studio-based practice promoted by the Academy.
Perhaps the most significant and enduring influence from his time at the École des Beaux-Arts is revealed in Degas’s commitment to drawing, which deepened with time, beginning as a daily exercise to hone the eye and hand, and becoming by the 1870s an essential part of the artist’s practice. The art historian Christopher Lloyd describes the transformation of Degas’s perception of drawing, initially as a tool in the development of a painting but ultimately as an autonomous discipline, arguing that the volume and scope of Degas’s drawings ‘enables his life and the evolution of his style to be told through an examination of his drawings and pastels alone’.
For Degas, he writes, drawings were made ‘by instinct whereas a painting was an artificial construct’, and by the 1870s his drawings, often making use of coloured papers and mixed media, were frequently worked up to a state of completion to rival his paintings.