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Degas and the Dance

by Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
March 16, 2003
Philadelphia, PA

About the Author:

Degas and the Dance

(Bio, Ballet bio)

Philadelphia Museum of Art
(www.philamuseum.org)
Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 26th Street
Philadelphia, PA
215.235.7469

By Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
March 16, 2003

Degas has always been one of my favorite Impressionist painters, favoring ballet and racehorses as his subject matter. He was born into a cultured, Parisian family and was a close friend and benefactor of Mary Cassatt, perhaps the only female Impressionist to succeed in the Paris Art Salons.

The faces on his dancers are usually obscure, as Edgar Degas (1834-1917) accentuates the attitude and the natural elements of the dancer, who may be fatigued, may be poor, may be stage-struck, or may be in rehearsal or in costume-preparation. He sculpts in bronze and depicts dancers and ordinary women, washing and bathing. He shows the effect of the ballet shoes on the muscles of the legs, feet and hips, with the exhausted, elbow poses and yawning faces. He even paints dancers, pulling their long stockings over or off tired legs.

As seen in other collections and exhibits, Degas depicts horses, in racetracks and or in stables with jockeys, who seem to dance to the wind. When I see a Degas painting or pastel drawing, I feel connected. I feel connected to the mood (human and personal), the texture (rich and layered), the color (deep and luminous), and the subject matter (my favorites - dancers and racehorses). Degas seemed to identify with the dancers and the racehorses, who struggled to achieve success and fame. Their expressions were focused and introspective. As dancers, we, too, can identify with these obsessed characters.

This Degas and the Dance exhibit, which luckily runs till May 11, 2003, has paintings and sculptures for everyone. The crowds were thick, but the lines snaked quickly. A small warning - Check coats and bags in advance, or you will be plucked from the line to do so. Another warning - make an early reservation for your tickets. This exhibit will be sold out, especially on the weekends. Also, the cafeteria happens to be excellent, with unusual hot and cold dishes, which even I, a most difficult restaurant customer, thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, the cold salad ingredients actually and uncharacteristically impressed me.

Now, a brief description of Degas' pastel drawings, paintings and sculptures, displayed in this exhibit:

There were pastel drawings and paintings from The Phillips Collection, Washington DC (one of my favorite museums), the Philadelphia Museum of Art's own collection, private collections, and Smith College Museum, among others. The dancers depicted in these paintings were not necessarily thin or beautiful, by standard evaluation. Yet, they were human and dedicated. You could see the passion in their faces. There were exquisite ballet performance scenes, with horses here and there, conveniently placed as part of the sets. There was even one horse with rear legs in fifth position, from a scene of the ballet, La Source!

There were paintings and pastel depictions of famous dancers of the times, such as Fanny Elssler and Marie Taglioni, who were archrivals. He painted Rosita Mauri of the Paris Opera, and, of course, his favorite and most famous model, Marie van Goethem, his "Petit Rat", a young dancer who was sent to live in residence as Degas' model for bronze, pastel, and oil. Everyone knows Marie, with that youthful pout, hands held behind her back, large bow in her hair, and a lace tutu, even on the small and large bronze sculptures.

Sometimes Degas painted on green or brown paper and thinned the paint with turpentine. While his pastel, Green Dancers, 1885, looked like lovely nymphs in the forest, they were neither graceful nor tiny. His Ballet Scene, 1878, 93 (which indicates a lapse until the painting was finally completed), captures a scene, partially in the wings, with dancers of undistinguishable features, fixing hair and preparing for the stage. The Dancers on the Stage, 1889-94, painted in oils and fall colors, looked like a rehearsal in the hills of Vermont. The Philadelphia Museum of Art then places a charcoal and pastel drawing nearby, which seems to be a study for a fraction of the former painting. In fact, this fantastic exhibit miraculously joined paintings from various collections and museums, which were meant to be together, perhaps for the first time since their creation.

One of my favorite paintings was Russian Dancers, 1899, pastel and charcoal, from a private collection, which depicted wild, gypsy skirts, flowered headbands, beads, and ribbons. There were also two paintings within the shape of fans, one 1878-80 and one 1879. Ballet dancers within stage sets of woodland scenes were once again within sight of each other. This Degas exhibit, of over 140 works, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which runs through May 11, is definitely worth the trip from New York, Boston, New Jersey, or wherever you may be. Order tickets early at 215.235.7469. You could travel conveniently by Amtrak.

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