"They call me the painter of dancers, not understanding that for
me the dance is a pretext for painting pretty costumes and rendering
movement." As an explanation of his art, this comment, voiced by
Degas to the art dealer Vollard sounds like an almost trivial
Richard Kendall, co-curator of the major exhibition, "Degas and
the Dance," opening Oct. 20 at The Detroit Institute of Arts, states
the case more strongly.
"His pastels, particularly of the 1880s, are utterly gorgeous
works of art. His way with color, his way with light, his way with
texture and surface are just fabulous," Mr. Kendall says in a
telephone interview from Paris. "On the other hand, the things he
chooses to depict and the way he depicts them almost invariably give
them an edge, a toughness, and a strength that you don't associate
with purely decorative art."
The exhibition features 144 of his paintings, works on paper, and
sculptures. Extraordinarily, this is the first exhibition ever
devoted exclusively to what constitutes more than half of Degas's
The French artist could justifiably be described as obsessed with
ballet, with ballet dancers, and with the Paris Opera itself. This
was the vast, popular institution in which these dancers were
trained from childhood.
Kendall and his collaborator, Jill De Vonyar, a trained dancer as
well as an art historian, relentlessly searched the Opera archives
for links between Degas's pictures and documented productions, as
well as known dancers in his circle. Their work has led to numerous
redefinitions and shifts of emphasis in Degas studies.
The two curators challenge the assumption that his pictures
follow the caricatures of the day by satirizing the predatory
backstage habits of the male "abonnes," or subscribers, at the Opera
vis-a-vis the female dancers. He became an abonne himself in the
1880s, and while his pictures certainly did, at times, show ironic
awareness of the liaisons of this shadowy world, statistically this
was not one of his main themes.
Degas's own connections with the dancers was professional and
sympathetic, but there is no suggestion that it was ever amorous. If
he was in love with these little "rats" as they were known, it was
as a painter. In those terms, his intense interest in every detail
of their training, behavior, posture, gesture, and often quite ugly
little faces, was much deeper than he admitted to Vollard.
Degas also relished the tulle and gauze and sparkle of their
costumes. And rendering their "movement" was unquestionably central
to his interest.
Kendall and Ms. De Vonyar convincingly argue that a number of
images long have had misleading titles, called "rehearsals" for
example, when they probably depict "classes." Such discoveries
should prompt the renaming of some works. Their research also
demonstrates close connections between recorded ballets (often, at
that period, divertissements during operas) and specific images.
And they can now document Degas's personal acquaintance with
almost 50 nameable dancers. …