Edgar Degas (1834-1917) The Ballet Class – Philadelphia Museum of Art

Degas is one of the outstanding draughtsmen of the 19th century. He tends to be loosely labelled an “Impressionist”. But his training alone suggests that this can’t be right. He was taught by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), who was one of the great draughtsmen of western art, schooled in the severe disciplines of Neo-classicism, where pure outline, based on the (notional) purity of ancient Greek art, was the dominant aesthetic medium. Throughout his life Degas studied to render precisely what he saw in terms of expressive line.

As an artist he was fully engaged with the world around him, exploring the variety of human existence, from shops and bordellos to race tracks, the opera, and the ballet. He found variety not simply in the settings of these human activities but in the people themselves – and, in the case of the racing jockeys, their horses. That interest had to be expressed in the accurate delineation of those people, animals and places.

This is true of most great artists, but few have combined
that searching interest with the ability to render every last subtlety of movement and expression in the way Degas could.

His acceptance of life in all its complexity is embodied in his compositions. If Jan Steen (which I covered last week) could impose a neat geometrical rhythm on a disorderly scene, Degas made no attempt to do so. He accepted that real life doesn’t conform to an orderly geometry, but saw that it conforms to a deeper and more surprising order – that of pure chance, controlled only by the rectangle of the picture-frame, which hardly dictates what is or is not included in his subject.

Even amateur photographers would make more effort to give their snaps pictorial coherence than Degas apparently does in a relatively grand format, like this medium-sized canvas showing a ballet school in full flow.

The scene is presented just as he must have observed it – observed it, though, with an extraordinary penetrating love of every detail. He loved looking at beautiful women, and as an artist expressed that love in the exquisitely tender delineation of their bodies – the line of their legs, the turn of their wrists.

The bald back of the dancing-master’s head is equally affectionately depicted, the whole personality of the man somehow encapsulated in that three-quarters rear view. And the chaperone, at ease in the foreground, absorbed in reading the paper (notice the freckled shadow that falls from her straw hat on to her preoccupied face) is as prominent in the scene as the dancers themselves, who by the sheer chance of their movements are scattered to the corners of the composition.

The eye is so completely convinced by the human truth of what it sees that what by traditional standards would be an eccentric arrangement on the canvas becomes inevitable.

One American admirer of Degas has said, “he is neither a classicist, a romanticist nor a realist – and yet he is all three”. Certainly, he is too expansively involved with life to be placed in any neat box – least of all “Impressionist”.