Degas at the Opéra at the National Gallery of Art in Washington

Degas at the Opéra at the National Gallery of Art in Washington

Over 100 works by the celebrated artist are now on view in Washington D.C. through July 5, 2020

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), one of the most beloved French artists, was passionate about everything at the Paris Opéra. Best known for portraying graceful ballerinas, he also depicted the musicians, singers, and even members of the audience. The National Gallery of Art in Washington has the third largest collection of Degas works in the world, and — with pieces from the Musées d’Orsay and de l’Orangerie, and other contributors — this exhibit includes over 100 oil paintings, pastels, sculptures, drawings and prints. It previously showed at the Orsay in Paris in autumn 2019.

Degas especially liked to show dancers at rehearsals and classes, perhaps even more than at their actual performances, because he could view them closely in an intimate setting. Consider the elegant composition of The Dance Class, with a teacher coaching one ballerina while others pose or stretch at the barre in the background.

The Dance Class, 1872, oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Bequest of Isaac de Camondo, 1911, RF 1977. Copyright RMN-Grand Palais/Photo: Tony Querrac/Art Resource, NY

One of Degas’s most famous pieces is his sculpture, Little Dancer Aged 14. This wax figure, a likeness of ballerina Marie van Goethem, is dressed in cotton and silk with a wig of real hair. Many duplicate casts appear in museums around the world, yet it’s special to see the original on display here. This is the only sculpture Degas chose to exhibit, probably because he originally received such mixed reviews. Some critics felt it was a departure from classical sculptures in stone which represented literary figures or goddesses; it was too “real.”

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878-1881, pigmented beeswax, clay, metal armature, rope, paintbrushes, human hair, silk and linen ribbon, cotton faille bodice, cotton and silk tutu, linen slippers, on wooden base. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

In some cases, Degas presents us with an unexpected perspective, such as focusing on musicians in the orchestra instead of the dancers on stage. In The Orchestra of the Opéra, Degas featured his friend and lead bassoonist, Désiré Dihau, and you feel so close to the spectacle you can almost imagine the wonderful music they were playing.

The Orchestra of the Opéra, 1870, oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, RF 2417. Copyright RMN-Grand Palais/Photo: Hervé Lewandowski/Art Resource, NY

Later in life, Degas began losing his eyesight and perhaps tried to counteract that with works imbued with vibrant colors. Four Dancers shows ballerinas adjusting the straps of their bodices with a swath of vivid blue-green behind them. One interpretation of this piece is that, instead of four dancers, it captures one ballerina, moving and turning in the space.

Four Dancers, c.1899, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Chester Dale Collection.

If you’ll be in the Washington D.C. area, this special celebration of Edgar Degas’s love of the Paris Opera is not to be missed.

National Gallery of Art
6th and Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC
Tel: 202-737-4215

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Phil Tremo is the France Today Ambassador for Washington DC. Phil has been charmed by France ever since a school trip to the popular Festival d’Avignon. Over the years, he has explored many regions of l’Hexagone, including a recent vacation to Champagne to pick grapes during harvest season - Santé! Back at home in Washington, D.C., he enjoys a variety of French cultural events, including films, concerts, and language classes. He is excited to be representing France Today in the D.C. area.

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