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- Painting Masters: Great Artists in History
Edgar Degas The Dance Class
Edgar Degas' 1871 canvas The Dance Class is emblematic of his fluid, documentary style, that gave life to so many illuminating studies of the lives, talents, and tribulations of young dancers on the Paris stage in the second half of the late nineteenth century. The Dance Class is also emblematic of Degas' early immersion in the performing arts industry. Following the Paris Commune of 1871, the entire social stratus of Parisian life was in desperate crisis. Seen as an entirely bourgeois pleasure, the ballet came to represent the decadent luxuries of the post-Commune era, that saw the consolidation of the reign of Napoleon III, the excesses of his court, and the urban regeneration of Baron von Haussmann. Degas' majestic and enthralling studies of dancers in rehearsal, preparation and repose, of which he made over 1000 during his career, have come to represent the flip side of the fashionable pastime, representing as he did life on the other side of the parapet.
Before a patient violinist, whose visage seems to meld imperceptibly into the piano, a young dancer practises her steps in front of a mirror. Beside the violinist a number of younger dancers watch attentively. It is a subtle and eloquent scene in which despite the foregrounding of the aforementioned action, no single action takes centre-stage. The rehearsal studio is allowed to come to life for the precise reason, and based upon the exact merits of its existence; as a rehearsal. A staggeringly modern piece, Degas' vision of an unfinished work, of a piece in the process of becoming, is achieved through the wonderful expressiveness of the dancers' bodies. The artist reflects the prevailing atmosphere in the room by dividing the dancers into three groups: those sitting waiting for their turn, those dancing, and those observing their peers. In contrasting the bodies in motion with those at rest, Degas' reinforces not only an impression of movement, but also the immediacy of movement.
The Dance Class, like many of the works of Degas, seems to reflect a spontaneous moment, when in fact the canvas was the consequence of a long graphic and pictorial study. Resonating with a vivid and intense harmony, Degas' magnificent study is an implicit critique of the favoured recreation of the educated elite. Under the watchful eye of ballet master Jules Perrot the young dancers are embodiments of an emerging social mood; one of exploitation, ambition, and beauty; the belle epoque had well and truly arrived.
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