Tag Archives: peasants

Edgar Degas – Russian Dancers

6 Mar

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, pastel

Without a doubt the motif of a female body, nude or dressed, in various different activities, was Degas’ favourite motif to paint. He made series of paintings portraying ballerinas, laundresses, miliners, women bathing themselves, but a very interesting little series is his pastel drawings of Russian dancers made in 1899.

These pastels are characterised by vibrancy and liveliness and that is exactly what instantly appealed to me about the pastels. The colourfully clad figures of these Russian dancers contrast strongly with the dainty and ethereal figures of ballerinas that Degas had painted previously. In all three of the pastels that I have chosen to present here we seen three or more dancers caught in the movement, dressed in their traditional Eastern European garments. The dancers are situated against a background of nature in verdant greens and yellows so it almost seems as if the dancers are peasant girls dancing on a field, or a meadow in the countryside, naturally and spontaneously, stomping on wildflowers and breathing in the fresh spring air while nearby a brook is murmuring and birds are singing. So convincing is Degas’ portrayal of the dancers that we might almost forget that he saw them at the theatre in Paris. The Eastern European dancers had an exotic appeal to Parisians who, instead of actually travelling there, could simply go to the theatres and cabarets and enjoy the vibrant costumes, strange rhythms and majestic dancing. Even though these pastels are named “Russian Dancers”, the dancers were actually from Ukraine which was at the time under the Russian Empire and Tzar Alexander II had a policy of Russification at the time. Also, to fin de siecle Parisians it was probably all the same so the generic title “Russian Dancers” stayed.

Degas does a wonderful job at both capturing the dancers in movement, and also capturing the subtle details of their wonderful and intricate exotic costumes; white blouses, skirts in orange, pink, yellow, lavender and green, their flower crowns and necklaces. We are truly able to observe the details and feast our eyes on them while at the same time feeling as though we are witnesing the dancers in action. Their volumionous skirts are swirling, their legs kicking in the air; what wild energy these pastels exude! Degas called these pastels “orgies of colour”, and it is easy to see why. I mean, just soak in the colours in the pastel bellow; the green and purple skirts, the lobster-pink of the flowers, the orange beads or the necklace, then the soft pink-yellowish tinted sunset sky in the background. The colours are so well-chosen and spectacular. It is truly a colour study of these dancing girls. In the last pastel there is a lovely contrast of the blue trimming on the pink and orange skirts. Not to mention the dazzling colourful ribbons in the dancers’ hair in the first pastel which also features a lovely, clear blue spring sky.

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, charcoal and pastel, on tracing paper, mounted on cardboard, 62.9×64.8 cm

Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, 1899, pastel