"Degas: Dancers Practicing At the Barre"
The original painting is square in shape, approximately 36"X36", painted with mixed media on canvas, and framed with a clear glass covering.
It portrays two dancers in extended positions at the barre: the one on the left stretching in Arabesque, and the dancer on the right, with her back to us stretching forward in a Developpe. Their supporting legs are beautifully turned out at a 90 deg. angles, as are their extended legs. Impressive, also, is the "aplomb" of the dancers, i.e., stability; they stand straight on the leg so that they could release the hand which holds the barre at any moment and not lose their balance.. These dancers are technically proficient and know the important part that the back plays in aplomb.
The dancers' skirts are filmy gauze with blue and grey shadows offset by gold sashes around their waists. They stand firmly embedded on a dark shadowed floor highlighted by the gold and orange with olive walls. The dancers reflect the warm sunshine coming from the unseen windows on the opposite side of the studio; their gauze skirts set off by their dark grey shadows on the wall. There is a gray watering can on the extreme left side of the painting. As many have noted, the can emulates the position of the dancer on the right, but the watering can's function is not only one of emulation; it is a necessary asset in a dance studio and has a two-fold purpose. A light sprinkling on the floor gives the dancer a better grip, and it also keeps down the dust from the rosin the dancers use on their slippers.
The filmy gauze material of these Paris Opera dancers of the 1870's, while beautiful to behold always reminds me of the many tragedies connected with this type of costume in the era before the electric light. A young dancer, Emma Livry, who was standing in the wings during a performance when her costume touched an open gas jet. In her horror, she ran across the stage with her costume ablaze. The poor girl suffered for many months before she died. There were flame protecting chemicals available at the time, but dancers hesitated using them because it made the costumes look stiff and dull. The remains of her costume are in the Paris Opera Museum.
I am attracted to this painting by the sharp geometric angles of the floor line, the angles of the dancers' supporting and extended legs and the sharp angle of the upward sweep of the floor, and also the feeling of space begging to be occupied in the bare foreground. Half of the canvas is occupied by that bare floor! The center floor beckons the dancers from their languid concentration at the barre to fill the space with their art. Our faraway glance across that bare floor leading up to the dancer (whose face we can see) echoes the faraway look on her face. The dancers' bodies and costumes are modeled and although both are in close proximity to each other on the canvas, each appears to be in her own world of concentration. The dancer on the left, in Arabesque is like a sculpture. I feel she could be turned around and viewed in a different perspective; such is her beautiful line. The two dancers occupy the upper right hand of the canvas on a diagonal. The huge form of the floor occupying the bottom half of the canvas also acts as a barrier to the dancers. We dare not intrude on their concentration. We can only stand back and admire.
The colors used on the wall which is bathed in sunlight, are gold and orange and blue-grey shadows. The gold is echoed in the dancers' white gauze skirts and their sashes. The floor is a mass of black and grey. The grey is reflected in the watering can. The lightness of the wall adds to the ethereal feeling of the dancers.
Line is used as a directional movement. The floor rises on a diagonal and is set off by a broad upward swept baseboard and echoed in the barre. The floor boards in their upward diagonal sweep are accented by thin black lines. The baseboard and barre are also outlined in a thin black line, as is the watering can and a fine line outlining the body parts of the dancers. While the black lines on the floorboards and baseboard tend to be loose, those on the dancers and barre are taut. The upward diagonals lead our eye upwards towards the dancers, but the counter diagonals of the shadows on the floor draw us back to "terra firma" and the firmly planted feet of the dancers.
The source of light on this canvas is implied. The wall behind the dancers is drenched in the gold and orange hues of sunlight and there are sharp shadows of the dancers on the wall and floor. The light is coming from the right side of the room across from the dancers; perhaps from tall French doors which might explain the long dark counter diagonal of the darker floor shadows.
The clear glass covering on the Metropolitan Museum's original canvas made it a bit difficult to closely observe the brushwork. The clear glass reflected the light in the room and one had to squint very closely to observe any real texture. From what I could determine, the brushwork on the floor and baseboard is smoother than that of the wall and figures. While the floor has a dull, smooth finish, and the brushstrokes seem to flow in one direction, the back wall is made up of shorter brushstrokes moving in horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. The dancers' legs and slippers are finely etched and look like a lithograph.
I was drawn to this particular Degas work because of its lyricism and quiet feeling. I like the long flowing lines of the dancers' bodies and the way Degas echoes this in the long flowing lines of the many diagonals. I admire the quietness and the calm and the introspection of the subjects. 9/29/03