May 2010: Edgar Degas "Ballet-Dancers"

Published on: 20 / 04 / 2010

Authors of this entry:
  • Magdalena Palica

A painting by Degas, depicting six ballet-dancers on stage, was most probably executed in the early 1880s. Circa fifty years later the picture was acquired for the collection of a renowned Wroclaw's collector of artworks, Max Silberberg.

Silberberg succeeded in gathering a few works by the famous French painter. Beside the „Ballet Dancers” his villa had been adorned by pastel paintings „After the Bath” (the painting can be currently admired in the Paris Musée d’Orsay), as well as an uncommon within the artist's works „Landscape with chimneys”.

One of the arti critics, who had described the collection of the Wroclaw's industrialist, among the works by Degas owned by him, was particularly enthusiastic about the „Ballet Dancers”, as he compared the result achieved by the contemporary artist, to the works by a Rococo painter Jean Antoine Watteau. Also other connoisseurs of artworks, among them Ernst Gombrich, claimed that especially in compositions depicting girls in dance, the French artist's creativity had reached extremely high level.

"In his portraits he kept striving to reach the effect of spaciousness and solidity, using simultaneously the most unexpected treatments. Hence he preferred more than landscapes, themes linked with ballet. Having observed the rehearsals, Degas had an opportunity to watch on all sides various shapes taken by human body. Watching the stage from above, he saw dancing and resting girls, studied intricate foreshortenings and the influence of light on the modelling […] His picture never illustrate any story. The ballet dancers never interested him because of their beauty. It seems as if he never cared on their temper. he looked at them with the same disinterested objectivity, with which the impressionists looked at landscape. For him the most important was, how light and shade were contracting the human figure and how to achieve the dynamic and spacious effect. He demostrated to the academic society that the new rules established by young artists were compatible with perfect draftsmanship, but in order to reach it new problems had to be solved, the ones that only a real master could cope with” [cit. from H. E. Gombrich, O sztuce, transl. by Agnieszka Kuczyńska, Warszawa 1997, pp. 526-527]

The painting deriving from the collection of the Wroclaw's industrialist is an example of an interesting technique used by Degas. It based on monotyping, on which the final composition was painted by the means of dry pastel, which provided deep colour saturation and brightness. In the painting which formerly adorned the Wroclaw's collector's villa, the painter had used as light conveyors, the tulle dresses of ballet dancers which reflect the rays of light from spotlights surrounding the stage. Owing to the strong contrast between red rose buds decorating the soloist's costume and her dark hair, and to vibrating spots of green and blue in the setting, the pastel gains uncanny dynamism.

Project co-financed by Ministry of Labour and Social Policy under Government Project – Civic Benefit Fund.
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