The Dancers of Degas

by Con Chapman

Edgar Degas is known for his paintings of dancers, the best of which depict the female form doing everything but dancing; stretching, relaxing, tying on toe shoes, primping, aching from the rigors of the ballet. It is as if he were more interested in the idle moments of women who turned themselves into vehicles for the expression of beauty than their actual aesthetic product.

In Degas' time the ballet was not yet the high art form that it is today. It was in fact somewhat disreputable, a near occasion of sin as the Act of Contrition of the Roman Catholic church would put it; with so much of dancers' flesh exposed to public view, they were popular objects of affection for stagedoor Pierres—both unwed and married—who courted and kept dancers as mistresses.

Ballet and horseracing—another of his favorite subjects—were associated with the sporting life and the demimonde and not the high-minded classical arts and diversions, but he was conservative politically and not ambitious professionally; he refused to allow many of his works to be displayed during his lifetime, saying that he preferred to be “illustrious but obscure.” He came to detest the notoriety that large-scale exhibitions produced, and thus was no model for the publicity-hungry visual artists of the 20th century.

An exhibit of his works in Portland, Maine a few years back thus referred to Degas as “The Private Impressionist,” but he rejected the term “impressionism” for “realism.” Just as some men are described in England as “unclubbable” because you wouldn't want to have them as a fellow member, Degas was “unschoolable” among artists, who stand to benefit if they can create a critical mass of fellow travelers that will attract more critical and popular attention the way a school of fish will draw more boats than a single sea bass.

While his paintings are filled with images of women, his life was not, at least on the surface; he was a lifelong bachelor who cultivated his well-deserved reputation as a curmudgeon. If his interest in the ponies and ballerinas is any indication, he inhabited a world of sensuality that probably made domestic life seem dull by comparison.

If there is a lesson in the sidelong glances that Degas cast at dancers as they labored at the raw material of ballet and not the finished product, it is perhaps that art can be found in the homeliest exercise, or back stage, or in those idle moments when a woman stares off into the middle distance, wondering why she's going to so much trouble to create a thing of beauty that will exist for a moment, then disappear forever.