Degas was interested in showing motion in his paintings. He tried to freeze motion as a camera does in a photograph. Degas used photography as both an art medium and as a tool to help him with his artworks. Horse races were a popular subject for him. Degas produced 45 oils, 20 pastels, and 17 sculptures related to horses. As a student, Degas had filled his notebooks with drawings of horses.
At horse races, Degas appreciated the movement of the horses and the colors of the jockeys’ uniforms. He wanted to make his paintings seem as if he’d captured a passing moment before, during, or after a race.
Degas would select individual jockeys and horses and rearrange them, refining compositions and creating many variations of paintings.
More than half of Degas’s works depict dancers. These are not traditional portraits, but are studies that show the movement of the human body.
Degas explores the physical abilities and discipline of the dancers through what are sometimes contorted poses that would be difficult for a person to perform.
Ballet gave Degas an ideal subject for fast motion, as well as an opportunity to be creative with composition of his paintings.
Degas often painted the dancers during their strenuous practices. He showed both the pretty side of ballet seen during performances and the tough, often painful side of what the dancers endured when not on stage.
Degas created a sensation when he presented his Little Dancer sculpture at the Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1881. His intention was to portray a young girl from the streets of Paris who dreamed of having a fine life in ballet. The public was used to sculptures that portrayed perfect, idealized women in marble, and they were outraged that Degas’s work depicted such a common girl – a young dancer from everyday life.
Also, instead of a noble marble sculpture, Degas created this work out of beeswax and found objects. Due to all the public disapproval, Degas removed Little Dancer from display and stored it in a closet. The sculpture stayed in the closet for 40 years until a wealthy man bought it in 1956. He gave it to the United States’ National Gallery of Art in 1985. It turned out that Degas’ model was an fourteen-year-old street urchin, one of the “opera rats” who joined the Paris Opera Ballet as a way out of poverty. Her mother worked as a laundress.
Little Dancer is now referred to as the most famous ballerina in the world. The National Gallery of Art displays the original Degas wax sculpture, but there are some 30 bronze versions held by various galleries worldwide.
Degas’s paintings often had unique perspectives or angles. The vantage point of the artist and viewer might be below or above the scene.
The Orchestra of the Operas is seen as if the viewer is a member of the audience. Above the musicians, only the legs and tutus of the dancers onstage are visible with their figures cropped by the edge of the painting.
Degas liked to design paintings with off-center compositions. In A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers, the figure is cut off at the right edge of the painting, with part of her left hand just barely visible at the lower right corner. Unusual vantage points and off-center positioning are a consistent theme throughout Degas’s works.
Arkansas Visual Art Frameworks
VA.5.4.11 investigate the connection of pattern, rhythm, and movement
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