Tag Archives: Ballet Dancer

Edgar Degas – Star of the Ballet

9 Jul

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.

1878. Dancer with a Bouquet of Flowers by degas1878 Dancer with a Bouquet of Flowers (Star of the Ballet)

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.

Edgar Degas – ‘Little Dancer of Fourteen Years’

26 Nov

At the 6th Impressionist Exhibition in 1881. Edgar Degas astonished everyone by presenting a sculpture. Previously he had just painted ballerinas, but now he choose to captivate the movement of a dancer in wax, an unusual medium at the time. Opinions varied; some critics decried its ‘appalling ugliness‘ while others saw in it a ‘blossoming‘. Still, this statuette is perhaps Degas’ most controversial work.

1879. The Little Fourteen–Year–Old Dancer - Edgar Degas 4

It was the first and the only time during Degas’ lifetime that the sculpture was exhibited. Extraordinary realism of the statuette surprised the critics, but the little dancer was considered ugly.

Degas made the statuette from wax and painted it so lifelike with real hair and clothes, and he even tied her hair with a ribbon, given to him by the model. Today you can see the bronze copies of a statuette, but although beautiful, they’re not as spooky, revolutionary or lifelike as the original, hand painted, wax ballerina must have seemed. Model for the dancer was a young Belgian girl, a typical ‘Petits Rat‘, a fourteen year old student of the Paris Opera Ballet named Marie van Goethem. Her family came to Paris in the early 1860s from Belgium. Marie, born in 1865, had an older sister Antoinette and a younger one named Charlotte. Both Marie and Charlotte were accepted into the dance school of the Paris Opéra in 1878, where Antoinette was employed as an extra. In 1880 Marie passed the examination admitting her to the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera Ballet and made her debut on the stage in ‘La Korrigane’.

Van Goethem family moved very frequently; from a stone apartment building on ‘Rue Notre-Dame de Lorette’ called ‘Place Bréda’, near Degas’s studio on ‘Rue Saint-Georges’, the family settled on ‘Rue de Douai’, on the lower slopes of Montmartre, a few blocks from ‘Rue Fontaine’ where Degas’ studio was located at the time. The Breda district in which that had previously lived was very poor and one of the most squalid areas for prostitution. As most ‘Petits Rats‘, Marie came from a poor and disreputable family. Various rumours circulated about her behavior. Some considered her sloppy and vulgar. Still, for Degas who frequently attended ballet performances at the Paris Opera and observed classes in dance school, Marie was a useful model. She would pop around in Degas’ studio and sit for him for four hours. She had beautiful long hair which she was very proud of, and when she danced, she would stick up her chin so that her hair would fall down her back. This particular pose can be seen in other Degas’ paintings she posed for. However, the position Degas required from Marie is very difficult and unnatural; he’d pull her hands at the back and tell her to stick her chin even higher. Even her feat are in a weird position. The arms are taut and the legs are twisted, a ballerina herself is presented differently than accepted, this is not an angelic pose which would be usual and approved.

1879. The Little Fourteen–Year–Old Dancer - Edgar Degas 3

1879. The Little Fourteen–Year–Old Dancer - Edgar Degas 5

1879. The Little Fourteen–Year–Old Dancer - Edgar Degas 2

Some Degas’ contemporaries praised the originality and modern approach of the statuette. Joris-Karl Huysmans called it ‘the first truly modern attempt at sculpture I know’. However, most of the critics were very cruel not only towards the statuette, but to the little dancer as well. Certain critics compared the dancer to a monkey and ot Aztecs. One critic, Paul Mantz, called her the ‘flower of precocious depravity‘, with a face ‘marked by the hateful promise of every vice‘ and ‘bearing the signs of a profoundly heinous character.‘ Degas had exhibited the sculpture inside a glass case, and the audience reported that is looked like a medical specimen.

Marie’s career as a ballerina ended soon after. She had skipped too many classes and at the end of 1881. taverns have replaced the dance stage. Her later whereabouts are unknown, as is any information about her death. An article in L’Evénement, which preceded the dismissal by two months, reported ‘Miss van Goeuthen—fifteen years old, has an older sister who is an extra at the Opera and a younger sister in the Opera dance school—consequently she frequents the Martyrs Tavern and the Rat Mort.‘ Once a gracious model to Degas, Marie stumbled in life. Still, she modeled not only for this famous statuette, but for many other Degas’ artworks such as ‘Dancer with Fan‘, ‘Dancing Lesson‘, ‘Dancer Resting‘ and many preparatory sketches.

1873. The Dance Class by Edgar Degas 1873-76. The Dance Class by Edgar Degas (You can see the proud Marie in the foreground; with a yellow ribbon in her beautiful long hair and chin raised high.)

1879. Dancer with a Fan - Edgar Degas1879. Dancer with a Fan – Edgar Degas

1880. Dancer with a Fan - Degas1880. Dancer with a Fan – Degas

1879. Dancer Resting - Degas1879. Dancer Resting – Degas