Graceful and other-worldly, ballerinas have long been popular sources of inspiration for painters. French artist Edgar Degas, in particular, focused a great deal of his work on ballet dancers, and many of the most famous paintings of ballerinas are his. Showing the dancers from various perspectives and in diverse settings, Degas provides a full and delicate view of the dancers in each of his celebrated works.
The Dance Class
Rather than showing the dancers on stage, in "The Dance Class," Degas reveals the ballerinas as they practice in the dance studio, in an unglamorous moment and setting that brings them down to the level of real people rather than idealized, leaping beings. Here you can see the ballerinas in various poses: leaning against the wall, in mid-arabesque, lifting their tutus and so forth. Details in the painting include a music stand, a mirror and director Jules Perrot leaning on his cane. The dancers' costumes and figures are richly realized. They each wear black chokers and some have flowers in their hair. The painting is from 1874.
Dancers Climbing the Stairs
A painting as beautiful as it is innovative, Degas' "Dancers Climbing the Stairs," housed in the Musée d'Orsay, shows a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the ballerinas at work, as was so characteristic of his many paintings of the dancers. Looking at this painting, it is as if you are passing by a rehearsal, getting a chance, intimate view of the ballerinas at work. The closest figures are three dancers on the stairs, two that are partially cut off from view with only their backs and heads visible, and one that is climbing the stairs toward the studio room, where you can see the white, tutu-clad ballerinas rehearsing.
The Rehearsal of the Ballet on Stage
Most likely painted in 1874, Degas' celebrated painting "The Rehearsal of the Ballet on Stage" depicts not the polished version of a performed ballet, but the makings of it. The perspective of the painting is that of a hypothetical viewer situated on the right side of the stage, looking across and back at the rehearsal. On the far right side of the painting, two men are seated casually, and appear to be talking to each other rather than watching the dancers. The ballerinas on the far left are partially cut off, and appear to be lined up and waiting. In the center right of the composition, one line of dancers is mid-step, their arms gracefully moving in the air and across their bodies. The ballerina in the middle foreground is sitting on the floor rubbing her neck, with the director nearby. You can see the back of the stage and the layers of the set design as well.
Dancer Taking a Bow (The Prima Ballerina)
One of Degas' paintings that focuses on a single, star dancer, "Dancer Taking a Bow" is easily recognizable, and shows a ballerina in arabesque in the lower right foreground holding a bouquet of flowers in her right hand. You can see the floorboards on the stage as well as the layers of bush-like set design protruding from behind the dancer. Between two of the fake bush layers, you can see the hem of a another dancer's tutu, and in the background, other off-stage ballerinas are talking amongst each other, not paying attention to the one performing.