Edgar Degas has always been one of my favorite artists. Although he’s been gone from the world for nearly a hundred years — he died in September, 1917 — he lives forever through his art. Even more, he continues to inspire. We can learn much from his works and from his words.
Art, he once said, is not what you see but what you make others see.
When I see paintings by Degas, I see worlds of beauty and movement. I see hopes and dreams. I see a celebration of spirit and freedom of expression.
One of my favorites is “The Dance Class”. Even though the figures are mostly sitting or standing, I feel so much movement in this painting. Of course, it brings memories of my own time in dance class as a young girl. For me, it conveys a sense of excitement and energy, yet also reflects the individuality of each dancer. In other words, this picture is alive. I can almost hear it breathing.
Degas painted many dancers.
He believed that “one must do the same subject over again ten times, a hundred times. In art, nothing must resemble an accident, not even movement.”
And so he painted Blue Dancers, and Dancers in Pink. He painted The Green Dancer and a second Dancers in Pink.
He painted many scenes from dance classes, and many scenes from rehearsals. He painted individual dancers, dancers on stage, dancers waiting in the wings…dancers, dancers, dancers.
Each of his paintings of dancers captures a moment in time. The human form is caught in motion — bending, stretching, bowing.
As we gaze upon the graceful, fluid motions of his figures, we begin to move, too. Our eyes move over the painting, noticing colors, catching details, enjoying all we see.
I look upon Degas as one of my instructors on my artistic journey. He has much to teach me, and I’m eager to learn.
Degas himself considered his work to be “the result of reflection and the study of the great masters.”
In this I can certainly emulate Degas. I can reflect upon the world around me, reflect upon my own desire to find expression in art, and I can study those great masters — such as Degas — whose drawings and paintings have so much to give.
I was very young when I first discovered the “ballerina” paintings of Degas. As a ballet student, I found his works inspiring. I wanted to step in to the scenes he created. I wanted to pirouette through his drawings and become one of the dancers in class. Even at a young age, I felt the energy and excitement of his art.
Today, Edgar Degas inspires me in different ways. As an aspiring artist now studying figure drawing, I’m fascinated by the simple, elegant lines he used to portray the human form, to show it both in motion and at rest, and to always imbue it with a vibrant energy that brings it to life and makes it real.
This Buste de Danseuse has become another of my favorites. Even without the use of color, Degas has captured my attention. The dancer is static, yet my eyes move over her figure, taking in all the details. All the while my mind is wondering about her. Who is she? What is she thinking? Is she preparing to step onstage? Or has she just finished a performance?
Sometimes I think of her as a student of dance. I imagine her watching other dancers, observing their techniques, and dreaming of the day when she, too, will perform arabesques and jetes on the stage.
In the same way, I study Degas and other impressionist artists and dream of the day when I can bring figures to life with lines and colors, when I can express my world through pastels and paints, and create illusions that draw viewers in.
Yet I never want to forget another quote by Degas. “Painting is easy,” he said, “when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.” In that respect, I hope I never learn. I never want to reach the point where art becomes an attempt at perfection. I’d rather always remain a student with Degas forever there to show me the way.
Learn more about the life and works of Edgar Degas.
Degas: His Life and Works in 500 Images
Edgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels