Dancers in Pink by Edgar Degas

Considered to be the best draughtsman of his generation, Edgar Degas called his work the result of “premeditated instantaneousness.”

His legacy is most often associated with images of ballerinas in various stages of relaxation, preparation and dance. In fact around half of his body of work – approximately 1,500 oil painting, drawings, pastels and studies are dedicated to the subject of dance. Degas other subjects were bathing nudes and jockeys.

Notice how none of the subjects in this painting addresses the viewer? The four principal figures, clustered around center right, at first seem to shift the weight of the composition, but look closer: Degas fills in the left side by directing the two central figures’ gazes towards the left margin. We look at what the girls are looking, and this very action shifts the balance back to center. Also, notice the position of the central figure. Isn’t it odd that it’d be entirely turned away from the viewer? Here Degas is making it abundantly clear that we are peeking into their world. We are visitors in their space and are not to intrude.

Now take a look at the dresses, and more specifically the brush strokes on the tutus. Soft, sweeping motions that read like soft pastels. His pinks are at once luscious and soft, full yet void of weight.

And here is an interesting fact about the painting’s exhibition history. In 1893 it was exhibited at the Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition in New York to raise money for the pedestal base for the Statue of Liberty. One critic remarked about the “… repulsively real ballet girls [but] magnificently brushed in.” Whether Degas was depicting nudes or dancers, he characteristically drew them in realistic, contemporary settings as opposed to the idealized, classical style that was accepted by the academics of his time.

Dancers in Pink, Edgar Degas, 1880-1885, oil on canvas Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT

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