Edgar Degas is my favourite Impressionist painter. He’d probably turn in his grave if he knew I called him an Impressionist because he hated the term, preferring to call himself a ‘Realist’ or ‘Independent’. I’ve written about him only once, but I adore his work so much that I don’t even feel the need to express how deeply I admire and love his ballerinas and theatre scenes.
Degas’ name in art is almost inseparable with ballerinas, in the same way that Monet’s name is inseparable with waterlilies or the Sainte-Victoire mountain with Cezanne. Degas started painting ballerinas and subjects connected to ballet around 1870 when his family bankrupted. These paintings were appealing to the audience and possible buyers.
Painting Star of the Ballet is not my favourite Degas’ painting but it’s certainly very interesting. The paintings shows the ‘star of the ballet’ as the title suggests during her solo-performance on an empty stage. Other ballerinas can be seen peeking behind the curtains. The star is finishing her dance movement which Degas captured very accurately; one leg is visible, her hands are elegantly harmonised, and her head is slightly inclined to her right. One feels that one is truly witnessing this beautiful passing moment, and Degas highlighted this dynamic and fleeting mood even more by painting the skirt so fluttering, and the plush black bow around her neck flying around. The ballerina is placed in the right corner of the canvas, while the empty part of the stage occupies the largest part. This interesting asymmetry of the composition (all due to Degas’ interest in Japanese art) only enhances the sense of this fleeting moment. Still, her movement seems strangely frozen at the same time. Like the characters on Keats’ Grecian urn, the ballerina cannot travel through time, it even seems like she’s going to fall because of the lopsidedness of the composition. Degas hasn’t painted the duration of the movement, but rather the ‘eternity’ of the captured movement. His ballerina is eternally incomplete, her leg is invisible due to the dance position, and she’s balancing on the other leg like a flower.
The model for the painting was a very popular nineteenth century ballerina of Catalan origin – Rosita Mauri, famous for her ballet skills, her beauty and fierce temper. She captured the attention of many artists of the day. Degas’ brush is not the only one in Paris that wanted to capture her gracefulness on canvas, other painters such as Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir and Leon Comerre painted her too. She even caught the attention of the symbolis poet Stéphane Mallarmé with her performance in Andre Messager’s ballet Les Deux Pigeons. He wrote he was impressed with her ‘ritualistic animality’ because she performed the lead role with her long black hair loose.