The Dance Class, 1874. Edgar Degas. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Mrs. Harry Payne Bingham, 1986.
This work and its variant in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, represent the most ambitious paintings Degas devoted to the theme of the dance. Some twenty-four women, ballerinas and their mothers, wait while a dancer executes an "attitude" for her examination. Jules Perrot, a famous ballet master, conducts the class. The imaginary scene is set in a rehearsal room in the old Paris Opéra, which had recently burned to the ground. On the wall beside the mirror, a poster for Rossini’s Guillaume Tell pays tribute to the singer Jean-Baptiste Faure, who commissioned the picture and lent it to the 1876 Impressionist exhibition.
Edgar Degas seems never to have reconciled himself to the label of "Impressionist" preferring to call himself a "Realist" or "Independent." Nevertheless, he was one of the group’s founders, an organizer of its exhibitions, and one of its most important core members. Like the Impressionists, he sought to capture fleeting moments in the flow of modern life, yet he showed little interest in painting plein-air landscapes, favoring scenes in theaters and cafés illuminated by artificial light, which he used to clarify the contours of his figures, adhering to his academic training.
Degas’s choice of subject matter reflects his modern approach. He favored scenes of ballet dancers, laundresses, milliners (At the Milliner’s, 1882), and denizens of Parisian low life. His interest in ballet dancers intensified in the 1870s, and eventually he produced approximately 1,500 works on the subject. These are not traditional portraits, but studies that address the movement of the human body, exploring the physicality and discipline of the dancers through the use of contorted postures and unexpected vantage points.
Degas absorbed artistic tradition and outside influences and reinterpreted them in innovative ways. Following the opening of trade with Japan in 1854, many French artists, including Degas, were increasingly influenced by Japanese prints. But whereas his contemporaries often infused their paintings with Eastern imagery, Degas abstracted from these prints their inventive compositions and points of view, particularly in his use of cropping and asymmetry.
Degas had a lively, scientific interest in a wide range of media, including engraving, monotype, and photography. Before 1880, he generally used oils for his completed works, which were based on preliminary studies and sketches made in pencil or pastel. But after 1875, he began using pastels more frequently, even in finished works. By 1885, most of his more important works were done in pastel. He submitted a suite of nudes, all rendered in pastel, to the final Impressionist exhibition in 1886; among these was Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub (1885; 29.100.41). The figures in these pastels were criticized for their ungainly poses, as in this work, in which the figure squats awkwardly in a tub, yet the steep perspective gives the work a solid, sculptural balance.
By the late 1880s, Degas’ eyesight had begun to fail, perhaps as a result of an injury suffered during his service in defending Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. After that time he focused almost exclusively on dancers and nudes, increasingly turning to sculpture as his eyesight weakened. In his later years, he was concerned chiefly with showing women bathing, entirely without self-consciousness and emphatically not posed. Despite the seemingly fleeting glimpses he portrayed, he achieved a solidity in his figures that is almost sculptural.
In later life, Degas became reclusive, morose, and given to bouts of depression, probably as a consequence of his increasing blindness. However, he continued working as late as 1912, when he was forced to leave the studio in Montmartre in which he had labored for more than twenty years. He died five years later in 1917, at the age of eighty-three.