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“Orchestra Musicians” by Edgar Degas

"Orchestra Musicians" by Edgar Degas

“Orchestra Musicians” by Edgar Degas

“Orchestra Musicians” depicts in the foreground part of the opera orchestra. Only the back of three musicians is visible in the bottom half of the composition, dominated by the black and white of their clothing.

The top half of the piece is the opera stage with ballet dances in full light, color, and movement. There is a distinct contrast between the youthful dances and the older aged male musicians who are squeezed together, as their black coats merge into one dark mass.

Degas initially painted a different version of the “Orchestra Musicians” in 1872 but revised it a few years later, enlarging it and converting the horizontal format into a vertical. He also overpainted parts of the original composition.

Degas added a piece of fabric to the upper edge of the canvas to make it a vertical format. He glued two canvas pieces onto another textile for support.

At the seam, a shallow horizontal groove is visible on the surface of the paint layer at the level of the dancers’ waists. The two different types of fabric are discernible in the X-ray image.

The original composition had the musicians in the orchestra pit at the center, and, on the stage in the background, only the lower half of the ballet dancers were visible.

In the revised composition, the focus on the musicians has widened to include the stage and its dancers. This painting launched a series of ballet depictions for which Degas is famous.

With his depictions of 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 the world of pink and white.

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.

Orchestra Musicians

  • Title:              Orchestra Musicians
  • Artist:             Edgar Degas
  • Dates:            1872/1876
  • Materials:      oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:  W 49 x H 69 cm
  • Museum:        Städel Museum

Edgar Degas

Degas at the Opéra

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’s 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.

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German Proverbs and Quotes

Degas at the Opera

Edgar Degas Quotes


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


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


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


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


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


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


“I should like to be famous and unknown.”


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


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


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


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


“Degas at the Opera”


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


Photo Credit: Edgar Degas [Public domain]

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