As the paradigmatic painter of modern life among the Impressionists, Degas often represented scenes of urban entertainment, documenting the burgeoning nightlife in nineteenth-century Paris. Although the spectacles of the theatre and the world of the ballet were painted by several artists in his circle, no other painter brought this environment so brilliantly to life. Degas was fascinated by every aspect of the ballet, both on and off-stage. As one art critic wrote in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts: ‘The ballet dancer deserved a special painter, in love with the white gauze of her skirts, with the silk of her tights, with the pink touch of her satin slippers, their soles powdered with resin. There is one artist of exceptional talent whose exacting eye has captured on canvas or translated into pastel or watercolor - and even, on occasion, sculpted - the seductive bizzarreties of such a world. It is Monsieur Degas, who deals with the subject as a master, and knows precisely how a ribbon is tied on a dancer’s skirt, the wrinkle of the tights over the instep, the tension the silk gives to ankle tendons’ (Degas, quoted in R. Gordon & A. Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, p. 183).
In more than fifteen hundred works in various media, Degas illustrated every step from rehearsal to performance; he documented the dancers’ arduous toil in practice rooms, their expectant preparations in the wings, and even their final productions on stage. The present painting is exemplary in this respect, including multiple phases of a performance within an individual work. In the left foreground, girls are waiting (or conversing) in the wings; on the right, two dancers are just entering the stage; in the middle and across the stage, multiple performers are moving in rhythmic motion.
Scène de ballet is related to another canvas Degas executed at around the same time (Lemoisne no. 838; private collection). The costumes of the dancers on stage become vibrant bursts of colour which fuse with the equally indistinct stage props; together the forms hover on the edge of legibility, almost disintegrating into an abstract pattern of light and colour. At centre, the dancers’ bodies are suggested with the utmost precision. They are little more than a sequence of legs creating a steady rhythm and articulating a dynamic path which bridges the groups of dancers in the foreground.
The vigorous application of paint, for much of which Degas used his thumb to apply, as evidenced by the prints discernible across the canvas, is especially intense in the highlights across the shoulders and on the faces of the dancers in the foreground. This dense application resembles the artist’s similarly aggressive use of pastel in later drawings, where the character of individual strokes often approximates the fluidity of a paint pigment. In its heightened abstraction and forceful fragmentation, as well as its strong colours and sharp highlights, the present work conveys an enhanced immediacy clearly seeming to seize a passing moment in the wings.
For Degas, the world of dance offered opportunities for endless experimentation, allowing him to reposition the dancers and rework their settings. This subject also allowed him to utilise the pictorial space to reflect the ballet’s social milieu. As Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge have observed: ‘Degas was particularly fascinated by the frontiers between the ballet and the world that surrounded it, between the dance and ordinary life, represented by the audience, backstage admirers, or the mothers and elder sisters who helped the dancers dress or kept them company. He liked to dwell on the specialized and artificial character of the dancers’ bodies and poses... All this was consistent with his ideas about a modern naturalistic art that illustrated a social context... Degas’ approach to the dance itself was indirect. The Opera was a bounded world that extended from the banality of routine to the ideal of the performance...Between these were the corridors and corners of backstage, the predatory abonnés, the traffic in sexual favors, and the rehearsal rooms’ (ibid., pp. 163 & 176).
As this passage suggests, Degas was interested not only in the initial steps and the end results but also in the in-between moments and spaces, their physical environments and social contexts. He was known to his peers as ‘the painter of dancers’, and as Richard Kendall has acknowledged ‘…Degas increasingly used the subject of the ballet to break new compositional ground or cross pictorial frontiers, such as those between pastel and printmaking or between the depiction of public spectacle and private behavior’ (R. Kendall, Degas and the Little Dancer, New Haven, 1996, p. 3). The present painting is an outstanding example of a work that stands at this threshold.
One scholar has described the events that transpired backstage at the Paris Opéra: ‘Behind the stage was a glittering private room that recapitulated the public promenade of wealth and possession. This was the dance foyer, the place where dancers stretched, practiced, and chatted with lovers before, during, and after performances. According to Georges Montorgueil, a nineteenth-century journalist, this small, intimate room was frequented by abonnés (men who had season tickets to the Opéra) ‘in black clothes and white ties’ (E. Lipton, Looking into Degas, Berkeley, 1986, p. 76).
While not located in the dance foyer, the present painting nonetheless insinuates the presence of the abonné, as an ambiguous figure intrudes into the wings of the theatre. A faint silhouette of a figure in black haunts the space between the two dancers in the left foreground.
While this figure could be a dance instructor, it is more likely, as a related painting suggests, that this bearded gentleman is one of the backstage admirers, who bows his head and casts his eyes toward the girl who faces the viewer, as if engaging her in conversation. In L’entrée des masques, another such individual appears as an equally inconsequential figure within the composition, a diminutive form only partially glimpsed on the other side of the stage, over the wing of the dancer in green. In other works, like Avant l’entrée en scène, the gentleman is more central, and his purpose more explicit, as he scrutinizes the young dancer before her performance.
Degas’ most extensive and direct treatment of backstage life in the theatre is seen in his monotypes. Degas’ friend Ludovic Halévy, a librettist and playwright, published a collection of stories about the backstage happenings at the Opéra, which Degas intended to illustrate. These stories detail the adventures of two young dancers negotiating between mercenary parents and predatory abonnés: ‘We were in the wings...there were wonderful old wings in the Opera, 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 Gordon & Forge, op. cit., p. 147).
In the monotypes, the narrative sequence and the individual personalities are conveyed through the figures’ bodies, their physiques and poses. The legibility of these scenes confirms Degas’ careful observation and intimate knowledge of this world. As J.K. Huysmans, one of Degas’ champions, exclaimed about one of his dance pictures, ‘What life! What life! How all these figures stand free in the atmosphere, how the light bathes every detail of these scene, with an analytic perspicacity which is at once cruel and subtle!’ (J.K. Huysmans, quoted in ibid., p. 163). In the present painting, Degas summarizes disparate aspects of the ballet, the performances that occur both on and off-stage. Exemplifying the artist’s greatest skill as a strident colourist and his discerning eye as a careful observer of modern life Scéne de ballet communicates with extraordinary precision and subtlety the spectacles of the Parisian ballet.