The Ballet Class by Edgar Degas
Interpretation of Impressionist Figure Painting

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The Ballet Class
By Degas.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Modern Paintings of
the nineteenth century.

The Ballet Class (1871-4)


Analysis of The Ballet Class
Explanation of Other Impressionist Paintings


Name: The Ballet Class (La Classe de Danse) (1871-4)
Artist: Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Type: Genre painting
Movement: French Impressionism
Location: Musee d'Orsay

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of works
by Impressionist artists
like Degas, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.


Degas was one of the few Impressionist painters who was wealthy enough to paint for pleasure, rather than necessity - at least until he was 40. During his training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts he devoted much of his spare time to studying and copying works by the Old Masters in the Louvre, whose classical style he emulated in his less elevated Impressionist paintings of Parisian life. It was in the Louvre that he met Edouard Manet (1832-83), who introduced him to Monet (1840-1926), Renoir (1841-1919) and the rest of the Impressionists. However, while he absorbed some of the characteristics of Impressionism and exhibited in almost all the Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris (1874-86), his main focus was figure painting rather than landscapes, and therefore he had no interest in plein-air painting, preferring to do most of his work in his studio. The apparent spontaneity of his pictures stemmed from his use of different and innovative viewpoints - an approach enhanced by his close interest in photography - and his exceptional drawing skills.

He was a regular visitor to the Paris opera house, where he produced several paintings and pastel drawings of young ballerinas performing on stage, but mostly he preferred to paint them in the more relaxed setting of the dance class, while they were rehearsing. And thanks to his friendship with the influential dancer and choreographer Jules Perrot (1810-92), he was able to produce a wide range of ballet pictures showing the dancers rehearsing in numerous classes. Two of his most famous dance class paintings, completed during rehearsal, are: The Foyer de la Danse at the Rue de Peletier Opera (1872, Musee d'Orsay) and The Ballet Class (1871-4, Musee d'Orsay). Other great works by Degas include: Race Horses in front of the Stands (1868), The Bellelli Family (1858-67), Portraits at the Bourse (1879), Women Ironing (1884) and Woman Combing Her Hair (1887-90).

Analysis of The Ballet Class (1871-4) by Degas

Degas painted The Ballet Class for the French opera singer and art collector Jean-Baptiste Faure (1830-1914). It was completed two years after the Foyer de la Dance, and it shows Degas' evolution towards Impressionism. He invents an entirely novel composition by giving the scene the illusion of having been painted from a raised position. This enables him to show the room in oblique and receding perspective, emphasised by the lines of the parquet floor. This sensation of the room receding is increased by exaggerating the diminution of figures by distance, using the process known as 'heightened perspective'. And while the Foyer de la Dance was modelled in delicate tones; this picture is painted in succulent, seductive colours. Compare the general colour scheme used in The Ballet Class with that of his genre painting Absinthe (1876, Musee d'Orsay, Paris).



Between the little ballerinas crowded together on the steps in the background and the two dancers seen in the foreground, stretches a large empty space - contrasting with the varied and busy detail of the ballerinas and their postures - in which the dancers will later perform. But now the space is occupied by the old ballet master (Jules Perrot) who stands there leaning on his wooden stick which he uses to beat the time. While a young girl in the centre of the group seems to be paying some attention to what he is saying, the rest are taking no notice.

The two dancers in the foreground are observed with a cruel and rather ironical eye. One of them, standing up and resting heavily on her ungainly feet, shows no sign of the gracefulness which she will display later on. Interestingly, X-ray analysis of the canvas shows that Degas first painted her facing towards the viewer. By changing her position to face inwards, he reinforces the impression that we are actually in the room with the dancers, who are oblivious of our presence. The other dancer, who is sitting on the piano, is twisting herself about in order to scratch her back. The sylphides of the future are now the 'monkey girls' of whom the Goncourts spoke, and give away their origins with every gesture. Degas himself, in a sonnet about the theatre, wrote this disillusioned line: "That queenly air is achieved by make-up and keeping at a distance."

Degas frequently used the same ballerinas in different paintings. The ballerina in the centre of the picture with the green sash, who is being examined by the ballet-master, also features in the monochrome Ballet Rehearsal on Stage (1874, Musee d'Orsay).

The room is lighted from the right by tall windows which are reflected in the big mirror on the left, which thus provides a second source of light. This picture is more brightly coloured than the Foyer of 1872, the white dresses being enlivened by glittering belts of different hues.

The influence of photography on Degas can be seen in the way he crops the edges of the composition, in order to create an impression of spontaneity, as if the painting is a snapshot of the scene. The dancer with the sky-blue sash (extreme right) is half-in and half-out of vision, while the tutu of the dancer sitting on the piano also lies outside the frame. Other details which enrich the composition, include the little brown dog (foreground), the cello (silhouetted against the window, in the mirror), and the green watering can (bottom left).

NOTE: For the story behind "Impressionism" and the group of French painters behind it, please see our 10-part series, beginning: Impressionism: Origins, Influences.

Other famous paintings of ballerinas by Edgar Degas include:

- The Dance Class (1874) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
- The Ballet Rehearsal (1875) Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.
- Dancers in Pink (1875) Hill-Stead Museum, CT.
- Dancer with a Bouquet, Bowing (1877) Musee d'Orsay.
- Two Dancers on Stage (1877) Courtauld Gallery, London.
- The Green Dancers (1879) Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.
- The Dance Examination (1880) Denver Art Museum.
- Dancers, Pink and Green (1890) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
- Dancers in Blue (1895) Musee d'Orsay.
- Dancer Adjusting her Sandel (1896) Private Collection.
- Two Dancers (1898) Art Institute of Chicago.
- The Blue Dancers (1899) Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
- Dancers (1900) Princeton University Art Museum.

Explanation of Other Impressionist Paintings

La Grenouillere (1869) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
By Claude Monet.

Beach at Trouville (1870) Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford CT.
By Claude Monet.

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) Musee d'Orsay.
By Renoir.

The Road-Menders, Rue de Berne (1878) Private Collection.
By Edouard Manet.

Luncheon Of the Boating Party (1880-1) Phillips Collection, Washington DC.
By Renoir.

A Bar at the Folies Bergere (1881-2) by Edouard Manet.
Courtauld Gallery, London.


• For the meaning of other Impressionist paintings, see: Homepage.

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