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Ballet Rehearsal

Painting, 1877, 50×63 cm
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Description of the artwork «Ballet Rehearsal»

In the second half of the 19th century, French ballet was on the decline. It was a period of stagnation between the two breakthroughs. The era of romantic ballet, when dancers learnt to dance on toes almost hovering over the stage, was over. The pathetic valor and fatal passions of Romanticism had faded and diminished. Yet 30 years remained until the overwhelming effect of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris aroused a new interest in ballet. In Degas’s time, ballet dancers were downgraded to the status of corps-de-ballet girls. Now, their job was backup dancing during opera performances where they had to show their legs to titillate operagoers’ imagination.

There were no great dancers and grand theatrical productions in Paris. Only kitschy interludes and hordes of ‘petits rats’ (the French for ‘little rats’), each hoping to be dancing a solo one day. Rats was a term for teenage working class girls who went to ballet schools to earn their living and meet wealthy bourgeois men whose attention, though hardly altruistic, would be helpful in making a career. Every night, men having special privileges appeared backstage. Degas was one of them. However, his purpose was different from that of most visitors. For several years, he had been applying for permission to paint rehearsals and ballet classes behind the scenes of the Paris Opera. And he took no interest in other enjoyments.

Degas’s ‘little rats’ had more in common with laundry girls and seamstresses than with celebrated courtesans and opera divas surrounded by luxury. Only the flimsy, translucent fabrics of their skirts and satin ribbons of their dancing shoes made you think you were watching someone ethereal, weightless, and charming.
Ballet Rehearsal is a backstage pastel by Degas, a secret glance at an instant from ballet routine. The bend of the wooden stairs, right above the place the painter is sitting, the dancers’ figures cropped by the right side of the picture are Degas’s favorite tricks. Used together, they produce an impression of a casual, momentary glance, register the reality with no intention to embellish or arrange anything.

But this impression is deceitful. Degas always pre-calculated the compositions of his works with pinpoint accuracy, like a meticulous draughtsman or architect. His pictures are as mathematical as they seem artistically effortless. He made his sketches when visiting ballet schools, but preferred to invite young dancers to his studio. There, he made dozens of drawings in search of the most expressive posture or the right angle of view.
Once, the police descended on his studio. They had found it suspicious that every morning and every evening, Degas was visited by underage girl dancers. But he appeared to be irreproachable: he did nothing but made the girls be staying still in exhausting positions for hours.

Author: Anna Sidelnikova
from 1450 rub
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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Genre scene

Style of art: Impressionism

Technique: Pastel

Materials: Cardboard

Date of creation: 1877

Size: 50×63 cm

Artwork in selections: 19 selections

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