Ballerina paintings portray emotional aspect of dance


Zoe Tseng

Degas’ “Dancers in the Rehearsal Room” depicts ballerinas in inelegant states of exhaustion. His art focuses more on their off-stage demeanor and emotion than their dancing itself.

Zoe Tseng, Staff Writer

The typical image that comes to mind at the word “ballerina” is a girl in a pink tutu holding an excruciating pose. Many paintings of dancers center on the beauty of this pose and the ballerina’s serene expression.

Edgar Degas is especially known for these types of paintings, but a new exhibit at the MFA has uncovered some of his paintings that shine a different light on dancing by focusing on the emotions of the dancers rather than dance itself.

The exhibit: “French Pastels: Treasures from the Vault” holds around 40 pieces of art from 19th-century France painted by Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Jean-François Millet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Odilon Redon and  Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Each piece was primarily created with pastels, the smear-like quality of this medium differing from a paint brush or pencil. Pastels can be used for drawing fine lines or creating broad strokes which can convey depth, expression and specific textures.

Degas experimented with many different mediums, including engraving, monotype and photography, but his pastel works were some of his most outstanding. He is widely known for the impressionism and realism in his paintings and for his candid depictions of ballet dancers. His interests in ballet led him to create approximately 1,500 pieces on dance. I gravitated toward Degas’ artwork because I danced ballet for 10 years. In one of my performances, I even replicated some of the poses from Degas’ most famous paintings.

Instead of portraying ballerinas in their typical lean and graceful beauty, Degas drew them “behind the scenes” and in positions of fatigue. The painting shows the amount of dedication and effort put into dancing by painting them getting ready. In the piece, “Dancers Resting”, a dancer is crouched over and lacing up her pointe shoes. In the background, you can see another dancer with her chin in her hands while hunched over. They are wearing baggy shirts over their leotards and puffy tutus, suggesting the dancer is taking a much needed break from the strenuous activity of dancing.

In “Dancers in Rose,” Degas painted a group of women in orange dress costumes holding a pose with their arms up in the air. The perspective is not from the audience; instead, it is from the wings of the stage so that one can see the backs of the dancers.

Many photos and paintings of dancers are shot head-on, or at least show their entire body to display the flexibility and silhouette of the dancer. By focusing on the back, it gives the impression that the dance itself is not the only aspect to be appreciated in the performance. It allows you to notice the glowy, warm atmosphere the peachy costumes emit, rather than only the ballerinas themselves.

This painting really emphasizes that there is beauty from every angle, literally and figuratively. If you look at something—it can be as simple as a book—with a different frame of mind, you’ll experience it differently and notice elements that were not there before.

Another piece that brings forth a behind-the-scenes aspect is “Dancers in the Rehearsal Room.” This artwork has a muddled gray background. The only color that pops is the blue costumes of the dancers getting ready. The dancers in the back are practicing the steps, while others are fixing their pointe shoes and resting; you can feel the exhaustion radiating off the painting. The shadows in “Dancers in the Rehearsal Room” demonstrate how tiring and draining ballet can be, going along with the theme from “Dancers Resting.”

Even though these pieces strip away the facade of the frequently-seen pure and radiant beauty of dancers, Degas’ art evokes a deeper appreciation of dance, focusing on the amount of time and training put into it. It is not that the ballerinas hold less beauty than they would if they were painted in the center of the stage in the classic arabesque position; rather a new beauty is given to them: the beauty of imperfection.