“Ballet Class”

Edgar Degas, “Ballet Class” 1881, oil on canvas.

We’re all familiar with Degas and his ballerinas; bright, charming, expressive – they are studies in color and movement, composed more like snapshots than formalist paintings. But what you may not know, is that Degas is actually making quite a statement with his studies of the inner world of the Paris Ballet. Notice that in many of these paintings, there is some woman sitting on the sidelines supervising the girls. This is not just to keep them from distraction, but to protect them. Coming from working class families, a chance at being a ballerina meant provision. Who else but the rich men of the upper class would therefore sponsor these young beauties, hoping to be the patron of a Prima? As we can all imagine – these girls were often taken advantage of in more ways than one – so the grandmotherly figure makes sure it at least doesn’t happen while they are in class. ( yes, she is even keeping the instructor accountable!) Degas is exposing a part of Parisian society that is the elephant in the room: everyone knows it happens, but in an under-the-rug kind of way. While this doesn’t necessarily lessen the beauty of these works – it does, at least for me, make me consider the role of an artist ,and their ability to tell stories, in a new way. (Original post to Instagram November 3, 2012.)

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