Dancers in Pink, Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas’ Dancers in Pink is an iconic and ethereal pastel work from the preeminent ‘painter of dancers’ and one most of the most esteemed documentarians of modern life and modernity in late-nineteenth-century Paris. The dark lines that surround the flesh in Degas’ pastel masterwork describe almost a chiaroscuro effect, contrasting pale flesh with the vibrant pink tutus. The proximity of the heads of the dancers allows the viewer to imagine their discussions, as they informally go through the motions in this routine event in their daily lives. It is an intricate and finely-worked creation from a figure who dedicated much of his life to depicting not only figures in movement but also the social conditions surrounding these young dancers whose lives were often marked by poverty and exploitation in the face of the elegant luxury associated with their performances. Acclaimed for his psychological intensity and ability to see in the upheavals of modernity the conditions of modern alienation and isolation, Degas is in many ways a radical figure in the history of art.
After several trips to Italy as a young man, Degas made the acquaintance of the Impressionists Monet, Renoir and Sisley, and participated in the first independent exhibition of the group in 1874. Yet, unlike his contemporaries at the Impressionist exhibitions, Degas’ subjects were confined to the interior, arguably due in large part to a serious eye ailment that made him shun natural light. He is best known for his paintings of young ballet dancers, of which he enacted almost 1500 works. With characteristic resilience he adapted the tools of his medium to respond to the increasing seriousness of his vision problems, working entirely with pastels towards the end of his life. Yet in spite of this, Degas’ dancers are far removed from the ethereal elegance and frozen contemporary lithographs representing the star ballerinas of the time.
Known for his subtle yet savage critique of the conditions of modernity, Degas’ Dancer in Pink is a denunciation of the gap between the luxury that reigns in the theatre and the often miserable social situation of the dancers. The pallid dullness of the dancer’s flesh is contrasted by the artificial brilliance of their costumes. Yet unlike the spectators whose vision could not allow them to see the reality behind the bravado, Degas even with his ailing eyesight saw beyond the final performance.