The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage

Edgar Degas
Keywords: RehearsalBalletOnstage

Work Overview

The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage
Edgar Degas
Medium: Oil colors freely mixed with turpentine, with traces of watercolor and pastel over pen-and-ink drawing on cream-colored wove paper, laid down on bristol board and mounted on canvas
Dimensions: 21 3/8 x 28 3/4 in. (54.3 x 73 cm)
Classification: Drawings
Metropolitan Museum Of Art

There are three similar versions of this scene, and their precise relationship has bedeviled scholars for decades. The largest, painted in grisaille (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), appeared in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. The two others, tentatively dated the same year, are in the Metropolitan’s collection. This painting probably preceded the version in pastel (29.100.39), which is more freely handled. The importance that Degas attached to the composition is evident in the preparatory drawings that he made for almost every figure, from the dancer scratching her back in the foreground to the woman yawning next to the stage flat.

Ballet Rehearsal on Stage, painted in 1874, was not a typical impressionist painting. The painting is an oil on canvas. The lack of color is evidence of the painting's anit-impressionism. The most obvious difference between this painting of ballet and another impressionist's ballet scene is that the dancers are rehearsing. Keith Roberts said, "It retains little quiet charm, like most ballet scenes did". 

Most ballet scenes show dancers performing for an audience, but Degas shows the dancers in a different way. The dancers are not only dancing but they are stretching and yawning. Though all of the dancers shown are dressed uniformly, their faces are not uniform. Every dancer has a different facial expression, but all of the expressions read as one mood: fatigue. One dancer obviously yawning, with both hands stretched back behind head, head raised, and mouth wide open. The dancers do not show the beauty seen on the stage. Author, Francesco Salvi, has his own view of Degas' depiction: "In The Rehearsal on Stage he captures the repetitious nature of a job like any other: the ballerinas' movements, rehearsed and re-rehearsed, an old teacher, two bored onlookers". 

In the bottom right corner of the painting, the first empty row of the theater is shown, once again reiterating that it is a rehearsal shown. The colors are dull, reinforcing the mood. Ballet Rehearsal on Stage is a prime example of Degas' work. This painting clearly shows the Parisian culture because ballet was a major aspect at that time.

For Ballet Rehearsal, Degas' chosen a viewpoint slightly from above, to one side, with the focus on the stage bordered by the footlights. The lightness of the ballerinas dancing, contrasts with the relaxed gestures of those on the left, waiting to perform. The thin layer of paint, rendered even more transparent with time, allows the naked eye to see the painter's reworking. The legs of some of the dancers at rest have been retouched. In the middle of the young women stood a ballet teacher, his back towards the viewer. Finally, near to the seated man was another figure collapsed in a chair.

This painting in shades of grey was immediately noticed at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. The painter Giuseppe De Nittis wrote to a friend: "I remember a drawing that must have been of a dance rehearsal […] and I can tell you it was extremely beautiful: the muslin costumes were so diaphanous, and the movements so true to life that it has to be seen to be believed; it is just impossible to describe". Like De Nittis, many critics see this work as a drawing rather than a painting. It is true that Degas captured the most delicate nuances by using shaded tones. He invented this neutral, milky tone, whilst the harsh stage lighting brings out the brilliant white of the tutus that give rhythm to the composition.

Of all Degas' ballet scenes, this monochrome painting differs radically from the veritable "orgy of colours" splashed around in his later works. The explanation is to be found no doubt in the fact that Ballet Rehearsal was meant to serve as a model for an engraver.