Formal Degas rigorously structures his painting with strong
Formal Analysis of Edgar Degas’ Ballet Rehearsal (circa 1874) Energy in movement and quiet placidity seen from the eyes of a fly on the wall. Edgar Degas’ Ballet Rehearsal, 1874 oil on canvas is twenty three inches by thirty three inches (Honour et al. 2005). The painting utilizes a sophisticated pallet and whimsical impressionist painting style to enchant its viewer. One of a series examining dancers, the painting of ballet students in rehearsal conveys Degas’ knowledge and fascination with the human form as well as his mastery of formal elements of art.
The configuration of the art work ponders a contrast between background and foreground utilizing dualities such as light and dark, energy and serenity, and clarity to obscurity. Line and space pulls the audience’s attention across the entirety of the composition. The impressionistic style successfully captures a moment in time, saturated with chaotic elements caught un-posed and half seen, as they are in real life. Ballet Rehearsal’s composition successfully blends line, color, light, shadow, and space in order to build an impressive example of visual art.
Arranged in the background of the composition are a group of dancers performing arabesques. The dancers, “go through back breaking work-outs at the bar or squat, breathless with fatigue, their features sagging, muscles bulging as their bodies graciously , with legs sprawling wide apart, totally devoid of erotic or any other charm. ” (Honour et al. 2005). Large windows on the far wall allow light to break through and spill onto the wooden floor and a figure, perhaps a teacher, waits and watches from the back right corner of the field of view.
A dominant spiral staircase tucked in the extreme left of the foreground partially obscures the row of dancers behind it. To the right a group of resting dancers sit quiet in their placid corner of the work. Degas rigorously structures his painting with strong diagonals and symmetries, the chaos of the scene dissolves into a clear and understandable composition which achieves a satisfying harmony. This is no surprise; Degas spent hours and hours backstage making preparatory sketches that preceded the artist working with oils on canvas. Burchett 2011) The elements of the composition are split into three sections, an energetic clustered section filled with movement, a void of activity in the middle and a serene detailed section meant to be contrasted to the first section. One element of Degas’ painting ties all of the other elements of the work into a complete image is line. Degas uses the floorboards of the studio to create a path for the viewer’s focus to follow. Thin lines in the floor invite the gaze from the bottom of the spiral staircase through the two groups of dancers to the top right corner of the painting.
These lines that draw us further into the scene produce a wonderful sense of depth. Strong lines focused at the base of the back wall and between the tan and red portions of the same wall once again pulls the attention of the piece this time to the top of the spiral staircase. The vertical and downward spirals of the staircase bring focus once again to the base of the stairs. Degas successfully utilizes line to connect all of the separate elements contained in the painting. In addition to its unifying quality in the work line also is used to portray the energy in the dancers’ movements.
By having the dancers in the background extend one arm towards the right and one leg to the left Degas implies line in the forms of their bodies. The extended arms seem to curve and swing downward while the dancer’s legs swing up, this causes their forms to appear to spiral and twirl just like the staircase. Movement is at the soul off this piece, the whole composition seems to curve and twirl. Energy builds on the stairs, thrusts forward through the ballerinas’ twirling dance and swinging around to the bottom of the piece where the focus slows before beginning again at the base of the staircase.
Degas’ pallet for the Ballet Rehearsal includes reds, blues, and yellows but relies heavily on browns, tans, golds, and white for the majority of forms in the composition. The floor, staircase and most of the walls are made up of different variants of brown with lighter tints where there is light and darker shades in the shadows. The dancers in the background adorn white almost smoke like tutus complimented with yellow, pink, red and blue bows. All of the dancers in the background have brunette hair except of the dancer closest to the center of the composition who has orange hair.
The male figure in the back right corner is wearing a vibrant red shirt which catches one’s attention. In the foreground like the other dancers the two here wear the smokey tutus. A rich yellow bow is wrapped around the first dancer’s waist and peach shoes hang from her neck. An old woman with silver hair wearing an orange dress stands behind the dancer. Overall the painting has a warmth to it, this warmth is broken up by the blue shall over the second dancer in the foreground’s shoulders and the small bits of blue found in the dancers in the background.
At the same time the blues connect the two sections of the painting containing forms that are separated by the diagonals of the floorboards. By using this method Degas brings more life to his piece. On the wall in the background a purplish smudge rests above the dancers heads. The smudge could be a water stain on the wall or places where the paint is coming off of the wall, but no matter what it is the additional colors add to the energy of the top left corner of the painting Light and shadow are prevalent throughout the composition.
Light appears to fill the room through the large windows in the back ground. Dancers closest to the windows cast shadows into the open area of the dance floor. Shadows are what anchor the dancer’s forms to the world of the painting. The spiral staircase is a prime example of how varying degrees of light to dark can portray depth and form. Coupled with brush stroke direction this use of light makes the stairs feel like they recede into the painting as well as extending our towards the viewer.
Another example of how light and shadow produce form is the dancer with the blue shall in the foreground. Her right shoulder goes from light to shadow rounding the shoulder. Degas also utilizes the extremes of light and shadow to highlight the differences between the two distinct diagonal halves of the painting. In the calmer more placid bottom right half of the painting contains the majority of the shadow in the composition with the largest darkest shadow being the bottom half of the old lady’s dress.
The top left diagonal half contains all of the large windows letting light into the scene, this separation could be another comment on the devision of the energy in the composition. The depiction of space here in Degas’ painting is crucial to its composition. The scene is viewed from a fly on the wall perspective perhaps that of the artist or of a member of ballet school. Directly in the front of the field of view a large open section of the painting divides into two separate but related hubs of information. “All the gossamer prettiness and and glitter seen out front vanish backstage. (Honour et al. 2005). Foreshortening in the staircase, the diagonal receding lines on the floor boards, and the size of the forms in the background partially covered by forms in the foreground creates depth in the work as well as creating a realistic sense of space in the world of the painting. Ballet Rehearsal’s composition successfully blends line, color, light, shadow, and space in order to build an impressive example of visual art. In this painting Degas gives his audience a chaotic scene in equilibrium.
Movement compliments serenity and calmness compliments energy, the contrast between the disparate elements of the painting makes for an interesting work of art. Degas’ understanding of the human form and of visual techniques separate him from the average artist. His ability convey movement in a static scene is un canny. Degas once said, “People call me a painter of dancers, not understanding that dance is a pretext for … rendering movement. ” (Levy 2011) bibliography Honour, Hugh, and John Flemming. The Visual Arts: A History. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc. , 2005. Levy, Paul. Degas and His Dancers. ” The Wall Street Journal. (2011). Burchett, Asha. Royal Academy of Arts, “Learn More:The Rehearsal by Edgar Degas. ” Last modified 2011. Accessed October 26, 2011. http://www. royalacademy. org. uk/exhibitions/degas/events/online-resources/learn-more-the-rehearsal-by-edgar-degas,700,MA. html footnotes Hugh Honour, and John Flemming, The Visual Arts: A History, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc. , 2005), 710. Paul Levy, “Degas and His Dancers,” The Wall Street Journal (2011), http://grobweir. files. wordpress. com/2010/12/rehearsal-degas-web. jpg