Monday, March 8, 2021

Reading the Sexual and Social Dynamics in Degas' Compositions

It's no secret to art historians and discerning viewers that Degas did not make pretty pictures of ballerinas. His paintings of the ballet in Paris are a conscious and (back then) shocking elevation of actual contemporary life to the level of high art. Yet they also include stark, wry, and unflinching commentaries on the social and sexual dynamics of bourgeois culture, hidden as it were, in plain sight. 

That famous bronze of the fourteen-year-old girl ballerina he made? 

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878-1881
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Critics immediately recognized it as a "creature from the underworld," that is, the brothel culture of the stage. Degas surely knew such a thing would be controversial; this, after all, is an underage prostitute. One writer called the figure a "flower of precocious depravity" with a "face, marked by the hateful promise of every vice" thrust forward "with bestial effrontery."

But I want to look at how Degas uses the formal elements of art - particularly composition - as the site where this darker content plays out between us, the viewers, the objects of Degas' observation (the ballerinas) and his inclusion of the wealthy and powerful men who paid money to enjoy them after the curtain went down. I'll leave it to others to elaborate on a what misogynist he was and to detail the merciless way he treated the already exploited women he called his "little monkey girls." 

I'll just say that I don't see sadism in Degas' work. I take him at his word when, bristling at being grouped with the Impressionists he'd helped establish, he called himself a realist. He was that, and of a special stripe - his observations of reality went where the camera could not: To subversively document the true beauty and tension he saw playing out just beneath the surface of modern life. 

I recently began studying Degas' monotypes for technical tips in composition, but when I did my head exploded at how Degas’ compositions always do more than “move the eye” through his paintings - they also convey meaning. The time and geography have changed so much since the late 19th c. Paris he took as his primary motif, that we generally miss most of the subtleties and end up deeply admiring his technique - his unusual views of the human body coupled with his spectacular skill in draftsmanship, his highly original compositions and subject matter, and his mastery of color - without considering his use of those elements to advance content.

Consider one of his monotypes in the revealing light of this note about it from "Degas Monotypes - A Catalogue Raisonnee":

"In late 19th-century Paris, the ballet was the profession of (lower-class) girls and young women (they were referred to as “petits rats,” little rats) who were available for sexual hire. In this monotype, a gentleman of means meets with a Madame Cardinal in the coulisses (wings) of the Opéra to arrange for a private rendezvous with one of her daughters.” (parentheses mine)

You read that right - the ballet was a place where the mothers of lower class girls not only encouraged liaisons with older men who might, at least for a time, support them, but also literally pimped them out to these moneyed "gentlemen" of the higher classes. 

Now look how Degas has composed this picture to emphasize the hopelessly unequal relations in the positions of power - between the dark engulfing bulk of the leaning "gentleman" and the diminutive, dirty-white figure of the mother of the girl he’s about to pay for. And what are we to make of those dabs of red on her hat, arm dress?

What museum curators and art historians of Degas have traditionally discussed is his incipient modernism; how, as a restless experimenter (we'd call much of his work "multimedia" today), he conveyed the behind-the-scenes views of artificially lit contemporary life, including the crowded backstage bustle of the opera house. His paintings seem to pluck random moments from the fast-paced flow of life, framing and cropping his subjects casually and a bit awkwardly, in a manner akin to a snapshot taken by the new medium of photography. But if we combine the strategy of mimicking the snapshot with the subtleties that advance Degas' underlying content, we can see how his appropriation of photography into painting was more than either a technical device or a gambit to emphasize the modernity and immediacy of his pictures. The example of photography allowed Degas in his most meaningful work to fuse seemingly objective, observational seeing with an artistic inner vision of the life around him. And in the case of the next image we'll look at, it allowed Degas to deliberately place the viewer in the position of the unseen observer, that is, the voyeur - re-enacting precisely what is going on under the surface of his work.

Take a close look at this second, often reproduced, pastel-over-monotype.

After the initial overall impression, when we really look (that is, when we allow our eyes to travel through the composition) what do we see first? For me, it's the leash, I mean ribbon, around the dancer’s neck. After the initial glance at that tutu, her neck is the first thing that we really see; the unflatteringly lit face it draws us to largely remains a blur, but between the ribbon and her neck there's the highest degree of contrast and the hardest edges in the entire  picture. As that ribbon which we see first trails away from her neck, it literally points to the dude whom viewers of the day would recognize as her “sponsor” (polite for exploiter). The half-hidden man happens to be the composition's second-darkest dark and the location of its second-strongest contrast, and hence the second thing we see. 

Prevented from leaving the frame by the curtain behind the half-hidden well-dressed man, our eyes return to the dancer where, having already seen the neck-ribbon, we now look down over the rest of her body. Landing here, we are strongly invited to admire (assess?) the girl's literally spotlighted, tipped forward bust as well as her shapely leg (the lightest light in the entire composition), which glows brightly as her thigh emerges from a sugary, fairytale radiance imparted by the footlight-illuminated frills of that tutu. If we return along the vertical axis of her poised body to the strong contrast at her neck and then to her face, where we started, following her outstretched arm this time and then moving back down again, we have literally enacted the "looking-her-up-and-down" of someone "checking her out."

Degas was certainly a master of drawing and of human anatomy and the off-center glance of the modern eye upon the fleeting moments of fast-paced urban reality. He was also a brilliant composer, who knew how to use the properties of art to embed his work with an original inner vision full of powerful psychology and meaning. The strongest art is always more than a pretty picture.


  1. I never understood why I have always hated his pictures despite seeing their loveliness. Thank you for illuminating this. I had no idea :(

  2. Nice pictures thank you so much for sharing with us.

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