Degas at the Opéra
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
July 20 - October 12, 2020
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photos by Anne Lloyd
The Paris Opéra exerted a presence in the art of Edgar Degas much as the “Wooden O” of the Globe Theater did for William Shakespeare. The Paris Opéra was not merely a place of fashionable leisure, but served as a focus for Degas’ formidable powers of observation, insight and expression.
Shakespeare’s Globe, thanks to the immortal Bard, could hold within its oak timber frame the “vasty fields of France" at the Battle of Agincourt. So too, Degas was able to capture the spirit of Paris at the Opéra, on stage and off, in moments of ethereal beauty, tense activity and sweaty, muscle-aching exhaustion.
Edgar Degas, The Orchestra of the Opera, c. 1870
Degas at the Opera is a recently opened exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Perhaps "re-opened" more accurately defines the timeline of this magnificent exhibit, which premiered a few days before the Covid-19 pandemic struck in early March 2020. The National Gallery has now reopened, with art lovers able to schedule timed-visits to the West Wing, site of this soul-restoring investigation of Degas and his love of music.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020)
Gallery view of Degas at the Opera showing Four Dancers, c. 1899
The National Galley has a well-earned reputation for staging exhibitions of nineteenth century French art. Degas at the Opéra is very much in the grand tradition of The New Painting: Impressionism, 1874-1886 (1986), In the Forest of Fontainebleau (2008) and Frédéric Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism (2017). It is an exhibition not to be missed and the National Gallery deserves a lot of praise for giving it an added lease on life under trying circumstances.
Edgar Degas came from a cultured family, with music appreciation a shared passion between Degas and his father. Auguste De Gas hosted musical salons at the family residence, inviting noted professional musicians and gifted amateurs to perform. Degas later painted many of these leading figures of the French music scene, such as the celebrated bassoon player, Désiré Dihau, who appears in the front row center of Degas’s The Orchestra at the Opéra.
Another painting on view in the exhibition directly references the musical entertainments hosted by Degas' father, the double portrait of the young Spanish singer, Lorenzo Pagans, and the aging Auguste De Gas. This poignant work evokes a rising, new era and the passing away of its predecessor.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020)
Detail of Lorenzo Pagans & Auguste De Gas by Edgar Degas, 1871-72
In some ways, the youthful Pagans is a surrogate for Degas in the picture. Singer and painter were born a year apart. Talented and handsome, the charismatic Pagans takes center stage in the painting, while the elderly Auguste De Gas barely manages to remain alert and composed. It was a diplomatic way of acknowledging his father's continuing dedication and support for the arts despite the baneful effects of old age and declining health.
The list of musicians, dancers and composers who were invited to the musical evenings of Auguste de Gas, later to appear in Degas's paintings, points out a hugely significant point. Degas was painting his life story in terms of music, not merely documenting the performing arts of mid-nineteenth century France.
Along with Désiré Dihau, Lorenzo Pagans, Ludovic Halévy and other leading figures of the French music establishment, the Paris Opéra itself figured prominently in Degas' consciousness. More than just a building, the Opéra had a character all its own. This "living" presence called forth an emotional response and, Degas being Degas, the relationship was a complicated affair.
When Degas was a young man, Opéra performances were presented in an aging building known as the Salle le Peletier. Ballet, being an integral part of French opera, Le Peletier was the site for the great dancers of the age. There, they expressed in movement the music of such masters as Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose Robert le Diable (1831) was one of Degas' favorite operas.
Le Peletier, careworn though it was, had excellent acoustics and Degas loved it. But in 1873, Le Peletier burned down. It was replaced by the ornate Palais Garnier. Degas disliked the new building, partly because it had been planned and approved by Napoleon III, whom the artist despised.
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, begun 1873, completed 1875–1876
One of the outstanding dancers to perform at Le Peletier was Jules Perrot (1810-1892). Degas painted Perrot in one of his greatest works and also created the first of his monotype prints depicting Perrot. However, Perrot's career and contributions to French ballet are problematical in their relationship to Degas.
Perrot was a figure of renown, but of the era of Degas' father. Perrot was a great dancer and choreographer from the 1830's to the 1850's and he created the celebrated ballet, Giselle in 1841. In 1850, he became the director of the Imperial Russian Ballet, a position he held until 1858.
Degas portrays Perrot in the role of ballet master in The Ballet Class. Two versions of the painting were created during the mid-1870's, one in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, the other in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020)
Detail of Degas' Portrait of the Dancer Jules Perrot
By the time Degas began the preparatory sketch in 1873, Perrot was retired. While he is known to have given some private lessons after his return from Russia, Perrot held no official positions in the French theatrical establishment.
Degas shows Perrot instructing the dancers in the class room of Le Peletier which, as we noted, burned down in 1873. This was very year that Degas started to work on composing this painting.
Thus, The Dance Class is an imaginary scene, a retired dance master whose Romantic style was passé, rehearsing ballerinas in a theater which no longer existed.
The Paris Opéra, Salle le Peletier, ca. 1821.
The Paris Opéra, Palais Garnier, c. 1889–1890
Degas' depiction of Perrot and his dancing class may seem more in the vein of fantasy or nostalgia than as documentary representation. This raises some interesting questions about Degas' attitude toward objective reality.
To his friend, Ludovic Halévy, Degas wrote that "One sees as one wants to see; this is false; and this falsity constitutes art."
Does this remark mean that Degas, the arch-traditionalist, succumbed to moral relativism? Or was he articulating an understanding of the selective vision that is a common trait of all human beings - artists most of all?
The solution to the riddle that "falsity constitutes art" can likely be found in the way that Degas used a limited range of motifs. Focusing upon these motifs, Degas explored the small world of the Paris Opéra in its every nuance. Sketching and drawing, painting and making prints, Degas "is constantly moving forward" as Camille Pissarro said.
As a result of his single-minded resolve, Degas saw beyond the "falsity" in art. He escaped from painting himself into the corner of an illusory or imagined realm - and gained higher levels of insight and meaning.
Degas was a patriotic Frenchman. His depictions of the opera and ballet are testaments to the excellence of the French traditions of these art forms. Moreover, he created these works at the moment when France was losing - or had lost - its preeminent position in opera and ballet. Wagner and Verdi contested for leadership as the greatest opera composers in Europe. In terms of dance, the Russian ballet, led by Marius Petipa who had worked under Perrot, now took the lead.
Edgar Degas, The Ballet from "Robert le Diable", 1871
Degas did not react to the loss of France's cultural hegemony by painting moments of vanished glory. He actually painted only one opera being performed, Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable. Amazingly, the focus of this painting is not on the ballerinas on stage but on a front-row patron, busily scanning the audience with a pair of opera glasses which he hardly needs to watch the show!
In almost all of his other opera or ballet-themed works, Degas portrays musicians and dancers engaged in disciplined work. He shows them devoting themselves to their art and to reviving France's position as the leading artistic force in Europe.
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1872
Degas utilized bold, experimental art forms in order to show the behind-the-scenes reality of the Paris Opéra. Particularly worthy of note are his "elongated" paintings. With one exception, these are narrow oil paintings with the subject depicted along a horizontal axis. The subjects were Degas' favorites: race horses and ballet dancers. The exception, on a vertical axis, was Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando, a circus picture painted in 1879.
These "elongated" works have a cinematic quality, with a sense of movement pushing the dynamics of the picture beyond the picture plain. As with other works of Degas, particularly the magnificent Four Dancers shown above, the various dancers - or horses and jockeys - take on the identity of one, singular figure as it shifts and moves about the dance studio or the starting line.
The art scholar, Marine Kisiel, notes in the exhibition catalog:
... the figures seem to burst into the picture from outside the frame, only to vanish in the distance beyond it. These figures have no individual identity. True enough, the bows on the tutus and the colors of the blouses vary, as do the poses, but a good look at them - watching them enter, move across, then vanish from these works - soon produces the impression that the eye is ultimately following just one figure: the ballerina in an infinite variety of positions or the horse and jockey united in one body, their essence conveyed by the nearly uninterrupted momentum of their graceful movements.
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, c.1880
Degas also pioneered the use of monotype prints for his ballet scenes. These seldom-studied works by Degas were featured in an outstanding 2016 exhibit, A Strange New Beauty, at the Museum of Modern Art.
Edgar Degas, (with Vicomte Lepic), The Ballet Master, ca. 1876
Monotypes, as the name implies, are one-of-a-kind artworks. With these prints, Degas was able to bring forth a haunting quality to the image which the vivid colors of the oil-on-canvas original somewhat obscure.
Degas also created a technique of making succeeding impressions of the prints, with the ink much weakened and then touching-up the print with pastel and gouache to create a color version. Sometimes, he added or modified figures to the scene. These are impressive works, yet they suffer to a certain degree, like colorized photos. The first, true monotype version has an unsettling quality which grabs a hold of our attention and does not let go.
In a superb essay in the exhibition catalog, Henri Loyrette writes, by "using this new medium, Degas gives a very different tone to his dance scenes, hitherto so lively and peaceful; now the ballet master and the dancer loom up like psychic apparitions from the dark, tormented background ..."
There was indeed a dark side to the Paris Opéra. It could be glimpsed in the figures of frock-coated patrons allowed to haunt the corridors, dance studies, even the wings of the stage. Degas was one of them, having gained, with considerable effort, a temporary pass enabling him to sketch and make notes backstage.
In the introductory picture of this essay, we see a top-hatted patron lounging on stage as the curtain goes up. It is relatively banal, a Parisian boulevardier enjoying himself indoors. But other such scenes by Degas are more in keeping with the monotype prints of brothels which lent such a disturbing edge to the MOMA exhibit, A Strange New Beauty.
These backstage flirtations/assignations introduce a cautionary element to the story of the Paris Opéra in the age of Degas. It is one more variation of an ageless theme: Et in Arcadia Ego.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020)
Gallery view of the Degas at the Opera Exhibition
Yet, nothing can detract from the wondrous quality of Degas at the Opera. It was a sheer delight to view the exhibit in February, before the Covid-19 horror brought museum visits to a standstill. I hope to see it again before it closes and I urge all, who can make the journey to the National Gallery in D.C., to go.
If the Covid-19 crisis has taught me one thing, it is that we should appreciate great exhibitions like Degas at the Opera with ever more gratitude. To share a few moments standing before incomparable works of art like Yellow Dancers is a priceless gift. To behold Degas' actual signature is to see with our own eyes the mark of genius.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Original photos: Copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved
Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917) The Curtain, ca. 1880. Pastel over charcoal and monotype on laid paper mounted on board: (sheet) 29 x 33.3 cm (11 7/16 x 13 1/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917) The Orchestra of the Opera, c. 1870. Oil on canvas: overall: 6.6 x 46 cm (22 5/16 x 18 1/8 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the Degas at the Opera Exhibition, showing Degas' Four Dancers, c. 1899. Oil on canvas overall: 151.1 x 180.2 cm (59 1/2 x 70 15/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Detail of Lorenze Pagans and Auguste De Gas by Edgar Degas, ca. 1871-1872, Musée d'Orsay.
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, begun 1873, completed 1875–1876. Oil on canvas: overall: 85.5 x 75 cm (33 11/16 x 29 1/2 in.) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Bequest of Isaac de Camondo, 1911. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Detail of Degas' Portrait of the Dancer Jules Perrot, c. 1874–1875. Black and white chalks, charcoal on a faded pink paper: 47 x 31.2 cm (18 1/2 x 12 5/16 in.) Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge
The Paris Opéra, Salle le Peletier. View of the New Opéra Auditorium from the Rue de Provence, ca.1821. Engraving, New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division
The Paris Opéra, Palais Garnier. Photochrom Zurich, Paris. Opéra, from Souvenirs de Paris, c. 1889–1890, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, Department of Image Collection.
Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917) The Ballet from "Robert le Diable", 1871. Oil on canvas: overall: 66 x 54.3 cm (26 x 21 3/8 in.) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.552)
Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917) The Dance Class, 1872. Oil on canvas: 32.7 x 46.3 cm (12 7/8 x 18 1/4 in.). Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Bequest of Isaac de Camondo, 1911, RF 1977 Copyright RMN-Grand Palais
Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917) The Dance Lesson, 1879. Oil on canvas: 38 x 88 cm (14 15/16 x 34 5/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washignton D.C. Collection of Mr. and Mrs Paul Mellon.
Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917) The Dance Class, c.1880. Oil on canvas: 39.4 x 88.4 cm (15 1/2 x 34 13/16 in.) Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, Acquired by Sterling andFrancine Clark, 1924, 1955.562
Edgar Degas, (in collaboration with Vicomte Lepic). The Ballet Master (Le maître de ballet), c. 1876. Monotype heightened and corrected with white chalk or wash: plate: 56.5 x 70 cm (22 1/4 x 27 9/16 in.); sheet: 62 x 85 cm (24 7/16 x 33 7/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the Degas at the Opera Exhibition, showing Degas' Yellow Dancers (In the Wings), 1874/1876, The Art Institute of Chicago, and Dancer with a Bouquet, ca. 1877-1880, Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2020) Signature of Edgar Degas.