‘I hear he’s becoming the painter of high life’
(Édouard Manet, quoted in J. DeVonyar & R. Kendall, Degas and the Dance, exh. cat., Detroit & Philadelphia, 2002-2003, p. 13)
‘...if only you are a financier, an investor…a stockbroker, a rich foreigner, a diplomat…if you have influence in powerful places…then the portals become open to you…Many serious men…are there, in the evening, finding fantastic shelter amidst the hubbub behind the scenes of the Opéra.’
(Eugène Chapus, quoted in R. L. Herbert, Impressionist: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society, New Haven & London, 1988, pp. 106-107)
Executed circa 1882-1885, Edgar Degas’s Dans les coulisses (‘In the Wings’) plunges the viewer into the very heart of the haloed Paris Opéra, beyond the gaze of the audience to the shadowy wings of the stage. Exemplifying the artist’s unique abilities as a colourist, and his discerning eye as a careful observer of modern life, this finely rendered pastel presents with extraordinary precision and subtlety one of the myriad spectacles of the Paris Opéra. Exemplifying the artist’s mastery of pastel, his favourite medium of this period, for which he has become best known, this work is executed with a rare combination of pastel on linen. A testament to its rarity and importance within Degas’ oeuvre, this work was first in the collection of Henri Rouart, the close friend and patron of the artist. An ardent collector, Rouart amassed a notable collection of late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century art that included Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Cézanne, and of course, Degas. This striking pastel remained largely unseen in the esteemed collection of the Rouart family for many years. Indeed, it clearly had a strong resonance for the family; when it was sold in the estate sale of Henri Rouart in 1912, his son, Ernest reacquired the work, and it remained in the family’s collection for almost the entirety of the century.
Appearing like a fleeting vision witnessed in the shadowy realm of the stage wings, Dans les coulisses encapsulates the radical pictorial construction that characterises the greatest of Degas’ compelling scenes of modern day life. Here a young female singer stands poised, music sheet in hand, moments away from making her grand entrance onto the glowing light-filled stage beyond. Next to her stands a formally dressed man, who is, like his female companion, rapt by the performance going on just beyond the cropped composition’s edge. The theatre, its performers and their rituals, chaperones and male admirers provided Degas with a lifetime of artistic inspiration. Indeed, perhaps no other artist has become so indelibly wed to the art of the performance. With his extreme cropping, unconventional pictorial viewpoints, and his scrutinising, often ironic and witty eye, Degas’ work remains tantalisingly elusive, revealing and revelling in the artifice both of life in fin-de-siècle Paris, as well as in the nature of art making itself. A reflection of its quintessential subject matter and medium, Dans les coulisses was chosen by the artist himself as one of his fifteen most characteristic works when he collaborated with the lithographer, George William Thornley to create an important suite of lithographs published in 1889.
To look at Dans les coulisses is to be immediately transported to the dazzling, elite and alluring world of the Paris Opéra. The Opéra was one of the great icons of Second Empire and latterly, Third Republic Paris; a microcosm of bourgeois and upper-class society, where social, financial and political power converged amidst a splendidly opulent setting. In 1875, the new Opéra building, designed by Charles Garnier, after whom it is now named, was opened to great acclaim, fast becoming one of the grandest and most culturally prominent establishments in the city; the place to see and be seen for the aristocracy and bourgeoisie alike. Immersed in the world of opera and ballet since childhood, Degas counted among his friends a number of musicians, performers and writers, many of whom were engaged in the programming of this revered institution. He was a frequent visitor there; as the records of the Opéra from 1885 attest, he attended fifty-four performances in this year alone.
From the late 1860s onwards, the Opéra became one of Degas’ leading subjects, an essential component of his visual immersion in the various facets of modern day life. Yet, for Degas, the draw of this subject lay not solely in the performances themselves, nor in the audiences who watched them, but in the events that played out beyond the stage. Due to his social connections – his friend, Vicomte Lepic had a ground floor loge or box, and the Duc de Morny, a man who, during the Second Empire, was second only in power to Emperor Napoleon III, was the patron of the artist’s childhood friend, the playwright Ludovic Halévy – Degas could roam unrestricted backstage, becoming deeply familiar with the inner sanctum of the Opéra. He pictured every moment of the performer’s routine: the preparatory rehearsals, the dancers in their dressing rooms, then expectantly waiting in the wings, the moments of their performance, and then the aftermath, their disrobing, and, occasionally, their interactions with their male admirers. As Richard Kendall and Jill DeVonyar have stated, ‘To an extraordinary and still underestimated extent, Degas’ ambitions developed under the roof of the Paris Opéra, and the materials of his dance art derived from its stage, its rehearsal rooms, and the activities of its personnel’ (J. DeVonyar & R. Kendall, Degas and the Dance, exh. cat., Detroit & Philadelphia, 2002-2003, p. 13).
As the present work attests, the activity that took place on the stage wings fascinated Degas above all else. Indeed, it has been suggested that this shadowy part of the theatre neared on an obsession for the artist. The wings served as the intersection between the private preparation and the public performance, the site in which all the glamour and illusion of the show collided with an often more sordid reality. Here, Degas could capture performers waiting to go onto the stage, their unselfconscious poses far more idiosyncratic and expressive than the choreographed routines they were about to perform.
In addition, he was able to bear witness to the watchful gazes, wondering glances and whispered exchanges between admiring men and the performers that took place in this shadowy area of the glittering world of the theatre. As the critic and writer Gustave Geffroy noted, Degas always ‘retained this taste for…encounters at corners and at half-open doors…’ (Geffroy, quoted in J. Sutherland Boggs et. al., Degas, exh. cat., Paris, Ottawa & New York, 1988-1989, p. 365).
It was in the wings that Degas frequently encountered one of the most notorious attendees of the Paris Opéra: the abonné. The shadowy figure of the abonné appears frequently, though often with extreme subtlety in Degas’ paintings, pastels and prints of the Opéra. These male visitors were members of France’s wealthiest elite, and, after paying a substantial subscription fee, an abonnement, were granted exclusive, unrestricted access to the dancers’ foyer de la danse,a green-room area specifically designed for these male attendees to mingle with the performers, as well as to the dancers’ dressing rooms, and most importantly to the stage wings. As one commentator of the time, Eugène Chapus, wrote, ‘Despite the measures that were destined to thin out the crowds of visitors backstage at the Opéra, [these only succeeded]…in eliminating a few feuilleton writers, also some authors and composers. But, if only you are a financier, an investor…a stockbroker, a rich foreigner, a diplomat…if you have influence in powerful places…then the portals become open to you…Many serious men…are there, in the evening, finding fantastic shelter amidst the hubbub behind the scenes of the Opéra’ (E. Chapus, quoted in R.L. Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society, New Haven & London, 1988, pp. 106-107). It was the side of the stage that was the most esteemed privilege for these subscribers and signified the greatest status, favoured even more than the stage-side loges in the audience. Often appearing under the guise of protection and patronage, these male visitors played a central role in the workings of the Opéra, and were frequently depicted in popular and satirical lithographs and prints of the time. As the majority of the dancers and performers came from working class backgrounds, their liaisons with these men were essential to their livelihoods, with some also receiving financial patronage from their wealthy admirers.
Nowhere was this social ritual more evidenced than in the monotypes Degas created alongside his friend Halévy’s collection of short stories, La famille Cardinal about the backstage happenings at the Opéra. These stories detail the lives of two young dancers negotiating between ambitious parents and predatory abonnés: ‘We were in the wings...there were wonderful old wings in the Opéra, with all those dim little corners and those smoky little lamps. We had picked up the two Cardinal girls in one of these wings, and were asking for the pleasure of their company the next evening. They were dying to come, the two little Cardinal girls, but Maman would never let them, never, never…’ (L. Halévy, quoted in R. Gordon & A. Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, p. 147). Intended not solely as illustrations for Halévy’s writing, these monotypes reflect Degas’ complete absorption in the backstage world of the Opéra.
In Dans les coulisses, the viewer is brought directly alongside this well-dressed man, most likely an abonné, due to Degas’ extreme cropping of the scene. The flat plane of the wooden stage wing forces the figures into the extreme foreground in an unequivocally modern construction of the composition. Indeed, there is very little background rendered in this work, with all the action forced into the very front of the picture plane. It is with his often-unconventional foregrounds that Degas succeeded in conveying not only a visual immediacy, but also the sense of the unexpected, bringing the viewer straight into the scene they are witnessing. Unable to share in what these figures are seeing, we are as a result required to speculate solely upon their identity and the meaning of their presence, and in particular, their relationship with one another. With his hands seemingly crossed behind his back, this male figure is standing in extreme proximity to the youthful blonde-haired performer. And, even though the figures are not overtly interacting, there is something about the closeness of the pair that could perhaps be seen to allude to a more intimate acquaintance.
It is this compelling visual ambiguity that characterises the greatest of Degas’ works. Whether at the theatre or opera, the racetrack, or the café-concert, the artist thrived in capturing, with the seemingly detached though penetrating eye of the observer, the complexities of human interaction and behaviour. Unlike his friend and sometime rival Édouard Manet, however, Degas never intended to make directly pointed, controversial societal critiques with his work. Manet’s Nana of 1877 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg), depicts a courtesan in her dressing room, with a well-dressed bourgeois man seated waiting next to her, observing her as she stands in front of her mirror in a state of undress. While here, Nana looks out of the picture plane, fixing on the viewer a conspiratorial, knowing gaze, in Degas’ work, there is rarely interaction out of the picture plane, with the action always taking place within the confines of the composition. It is in Degas’ radical pictorial construction – his extreme cropping, audacious viewpoints and often theatrical staging – that charges these views of everyday life with a powerful, subversive meaning. At once enigmatic, inscrutable, humorous or ironic, his work continues to compel through the angles, framing and compositions he created, as much as the figures, narratives and settings that he portrayed.
Degas has rendered Dans les coulisses with his favourite medium of this period: pastel. From the 1880s onwards, Degas increasingly left oil paint behind, preferring the immediacy of pastel, as well as the unique combination of colour and line he could attain from this soft, malleable material. Unusually within Degas’ pastel oeuvre, he has used linen instead of paper as the support, enabling the pastel to adhere to the underlying texture, which becomes a component of the composition itself. Using fine, individual strokes of colour, Degas has captured the refined features of the young singer’s profile with an exquisite delicacy. The soft pink blush of her cheek, fair hair and peach-coloured dress appear all the more luminous and feminine next to the dark featured presence of the man next to her. Rendered using a combination of deep Prussian blue, iridescent purples and deep turquoise shades, this dark suited figure works in complete dialogue with his female companion. With this work, Degas’ technical virtuosity of the medium of pastel, as well as his skill as a colourist and draughtsman come to the fore. Deftly blending the pastel in areas, and overlaying these with finely rendered, linear strokes of colour, Degas has captured subtle highlights, tones and hues – both naturalistic and imagined – as well as conveying the physical presence of the two figures. The loose, rapidly applied strokes of pastel also heighten the ephemeral sense of this scene. In just a second, the singer will take her place upon the stage, and this fleeting momentary scene will disappear. With pastel, Degas could perfectly convey the transitory, fragmentary nature of modern life in the modernising metropolis, and more than this, the inherently ephemeral quality of life within the confines of the Opéra, a place dedicated above all to the creation of glittering, ephemeral illusions.