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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“Three Dancers at a Dance Class” by Edgar Degas

"Three Dancers at a Dance Class" by Edgar Degas

“Three Dancers at a Dance Class”

by Edgar Degas

“Three Dancers at a Dance Class” by Edgar Degas depicts one of Degas’s favourite themes, dancers captured in casual off-stage poses. The artist’s interest in Japanese woodcut prints influenced the painting’s diagonal composition. The bench is part of an overall layout that allows Degas to explore a variety of poses. He has composed a seated figure, a figure with a raised leg, and a figure is standing. Ballet classes provided Degas with the opportunity to study the human body during periods of rest and focused activity.

Ballet dancers were one of Degas’ favourite subjects.  Degas told a Parisian art dealer:

“People call me the painter of dancing girls, it has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.” 

These dancers were known as “petits rats de l’opéra,” literally “opera rats”, because of their scurrying around the opera stage in tiny, fast-moving steps.  Young, pretty, and poor, the ballet students were potential targets of wealthy patrons; thus, the term also had negative connotations. In this world of wealth and poverty, Degas’s studio was once visited by the police morals unit, wanting to know why so many little girls were coming and going.

At the ballet, Degas captured a world that excited his taste for classical beauty and his eye for modern realism. He became a regular visitor to the Paris Opéra and its Ballet, and he invented new techniques for drawing and painting to depict that unique world. This painting is a late oil painting by Degas, dating from a time when pastel had become his preferred medium.

Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas (1834–1917) was prolific in paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings. He was fond of the subject of dance, and more than half of his works depict dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, although Degas rejected the term, preferring to be called a Realist. He was masterly in depicting movement, as can be seen in his many masterpieces of dancers, racecourse subjects and female nudes.

Three Dancers at a Dance Class

  • Title:         Three Dancers at a Dance Class
  • French:     Trois danseuses à la classe de danse
  • Artist:       Edgar Degas
  • Dates:       1888–90
  • Materials: Oil on cardboard
  • Museum:  Queensland Art Gallery

Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas Insights

  • Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas was born in Paris, France, in 1834.
  • He was the eldest son of a wealthy banker, and a Creole woman from New Orléans, who died when Degas was 13.
  • His father appreciated his son’s artistic talent, but he wanted his son to become a lawyer, so Degas duly enrolled in law school, but soon dropped out.
  • His teachers encouraged Degas to copy the Old Masters at the Louvre. This advice became early practice, and he made many copies of works by Michelangelo, Raphael and other Renaissance artists.
  • Degas was also a sculptor but did not make his sculptures for the public.
  • The only sculpture Degas ever exhibited publicly was The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, in 1881.
  • Dancers were frequent subjects in his art, particularly the dancers of the Paris Opera.
  • He is famous for his paintings of ballerinas, at work, in rehearsal or at rest.
  • A significant theme of Degas’ work was paintings of women in the bath or at their toilette.
  • Degas’ interest in the female nude, persisted throughout his career.
  • Horses and horse racing were also key subjects of Degas work.
  • Degas produced some 45 oil paintings of horse races.
  • Degas lived into the 20th century, and promoted his work tirelessly and became an art collector.
  • He did have close relationships with several women, including the American painter Mary Cassatt.
  • Edgar Degas sided with the “anti-Dreyfusards” the Dreyfus Affair. His antisemitism alienated him from many of his friends.
  • Degas was troubled with eye problems. He had to wear dark glasses outdoors and stop his work in 1912.
  • Edgar Degas died in Paris in 1917. He was 83 years old.
  • Degas never married.
  • Today Degas is considered a pioneer of the Impressionism movement.

Reflections

  • Is Degas most famous for his works which depicted dancers?
  • Do ballet dancers equal Degas?

A Tour of the Queensland Art Gallery

Edgar Degas Quotes

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“Beauty is a mystery, but no one knows it anymore.
The recipes, the secrets are forgotten.”

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“The creation of a painting takes as much trickery and premeditation as the commitment of a crime.”

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“Everyone has talent at twenty-five. The difficulty is to have it at fifty.”

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“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

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“I should like to be famous and unknown.”

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“Muses work all day long and then at night get together and dance…”

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“I would rather do nothing than do a rough sketch without having looked at anything. My memories will do better.”

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“Conversation in real life is full of half-finished sentences and overlapping talk. Why shouldn’t painting be too?”

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“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.”

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“A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain, you end up boring people.”

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“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

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“Do it again, ten times, a hundred times. Nothing in art must seem to be an accident, not even movement.”

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“What a delightful thing is the conversation of specialists! One understands absolutely nothing, and it’s charming.”

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“You must aim high, not in what you are going to do at some future date, but in what you are going to make yourself do to-day. Otherwise, working is just a waste of time.”

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“We were created to look at one another, weren’t we?”

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“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.”

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“We were created to look at one another, weren’t we?”
– Edgar Degas

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Photo Credit: GM

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