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Degas Paintings

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Degas became a member of the Impressionists group, painting scenes of modern life with bright colors and broken brush strokes, instead of the historical and mythological images akin to previous artists. Unlike his Impressionist friends who enjoyed painting outdoor scenes, Edgar Degas was largely an urban painter, who preferred to paint the enclosed spaces of stage shows, leisure activities and studios. Degas spent more time painting in a studio than most Impressionists and he painted from sketches or from memory instead of from nature. As with other Impressionists, Degas was interested in lighting effects, movement, and real subjects captured in everyday life. He studied movement and made numerous sketches and paintings of the human body in motion.

Degas seemed to favor ballet dancers, women at their toilette, café life, and race-track scenes. Degas is well-known as a painter of the ballet. By the end of his career more than 1,500 of his works of art portray the Paris Opera-Ballet. He was interested not only in the dancing but the entire sequence of activity from stretching, to dancing, to resting, and everything in between. His paintings illustrate all phases. He attempted to portray the tension and exhaustion that a ballerina feels in his paintings. He tried to make each gesture and position as realistic as possible. Ballet dancers were invited to Degas’ study so he could sketch and paint while they stretched and practiced. Later he was invited to the ballet rehearsals and performances to work backstage.

Degas experimented with ideas that he got from studying Japanese prints. He experimented with flat surfaces of color as well as unusual points of view. He used large empty spaces in his compositions to help direct the eye around the picture. Influenced by photography he deviated from the traditional ideas of a balanced painting and would make paintings look more natural. In his unusual cropping technique he would cut figures off at the edge of the canvas, similar to a photograph, painted from unusual angles, and painted subjects off center.

In the 1890s Degas’ eyesight started to fail and his style became brighter in color and more liberated and expressive in style. Instead of painting, he began to direct his attentions to pastels, charcoal drawings, and sculptures. By 1898 Degas was nearly blind.

Degas ultimately mastered a variety of media including oils, pastels, printmaking, sculpture, and photography. He had an influence on many younger colleagues including Picasso, and Matisse.

The Bellelli Family

Frequently when one thinks of Edgar Degas they think of paintings of dancers, racehorses, and the social scene in Paris. However he had quite an educational background and even studied in Rome where he copied the work of Renaissance masters. During this time he became quite a talented portrait painter. One of his most famous portraits is The Bellelli Family.

This insightful family portrait was painted over a number of years, between 1858 and 1867. In 1858, while staying with his aunt’s family in Naples he made his first studies for his future masterpiece. When he returned to France in 1859 he had a studio large enough to allow him to begin work on The Bellelli Family painting on a large imposing canvas which he intended to exhibit at the Salon. However, the painting was left unfinished until 1867.

The brilliantly composed portrait portrays Degas’ aunt, his father’s sister Laure Bellelli, her two preteen daughters, Giula and Giovanna, and their father, the Baron Gennaro Bellelli. In the scene we see the family situated in the parlor, with a fireplace, mirror, clock and a framed drawing of Degas’ grandfather, Hilare, who had recently died, hanging on the wall next to his aunt. The mother is dresses in black as she mourns the death of her father and the girls are primarily dressed in black, with all the colors of the painting being rather restrained.

In this painting, as in others, Degas was drawn to the tensions between men and women. In The Bellelli Family we can see the strained relationship between the mother and father figures and the dysfunctional family. The mother’s arm rests on one daughter, while the other daughter sits on a chair with one leg tucked under her dress and her head turned toward the father perhaps portraying a link to him versus the mother. The father sits in a black chair with his back to the viewer and we see his shadowed side profile. The vertical lines of the frame, candlestick, and table leg draw a separation between the father and the rest of the family. None of the family members make eye contact. Each member of the family seems isolated. The dimensions, somber colors, and open perspectives of the doorway and cut-off mirror all work together to intensify the feeling of oppression in the room. The seemingly playful seated position of the younger daughter seems to contrast the weight of the atmosphere while her older sister seems to already have succumb to the weight of adult conventions, standing properly with hands folded with restraint.

This now well known family portrait was not shown publicly until all of the people represented in the painting were no longer living.

The Dance Class

French Impressionist Edgar Degas’ most famous paintings are those of his ballerinas which make up over half of his total work. Though Degas was considered an Impressionist he rejected the movement’s fondness for outdoor painting. Instead he seemed to prefer painting in the dance studios and opera houses of the city. Degas was focused on capturing natural poses and movements that were as spontaneous as a photograph.

One of these works is The Dance Class. The Dance Class was originally intended for the first Impressionist exhibition however it was not shown until the second Exhibition in 1876. The painting was commissioned by singer and collector Jean-Baptiste Faure in 1872 and was delivered in 1874 following two years of sporadic work. It now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

This ambitious masterpiece portrays some 24 different women including ballerinas and their mothers. At the center of the painting is the famous European dancer and ballet master, Jules Perrot leaning on a staff. Also central to the scene is one ballerina dancing while all the others seem to be milling about while waiting their turn. In the upper right corner of the painting we see the mothers who have chaperoned their daughters during the class. The scene is set in the old Paris Opera with a poster for Rossini’s ‘Guillaume Tell’ hanging on the wall next to the mirror which shows the reflection of a nearby window.

During his time this was a somewhat outrageous painting. It has the feel of being disorganized and unbalanced something of a snapshot. Some of the women have faces that are obscured, a woman, who seems to be growing out of three other heads, has her fingers in her mouth apparently biting her nails, while the woman in the foreground seems to be adjusting her tutu, and another is adjusting her choker. The women are portrayed in less than graceful ideals. This is a painting that breaks from the traditional narrative painting with a very momentary unplanned feel, yet it was very well planned out and executed showing the thoroughness of Degas’ technical mastery.

As viewers we have another insiders view of the setting and goings on yet the other characters in the scene can’t see us. We have a view of the movement as well as the humdrum, unglamorous, daily life at the opera.

Woman with Chrysanthemums / Madame Valpincon with Chrysanthemums

Degas was heavily influenced by Japanese prints as well as by photography. He departed from the traditional balanced arrangement in paintings and experimented with and introduced the idea of off-centered objects, and the appearance of accidental cut-offs, along with unusual visual angles and asymmetrical compositions all giving the appearance of a lack of planning yet on the contrary all quite carefully planned and arranged.

Woman with Chrysanthemums is an example of one of Degas’ famous works in which he has effected the balance of the painting. The female subject in the painting is pushed off into the corner of the canvas by the large centrally located bouquet of flowers.