Degas’s Struggle for Perfection Mirrors Dancers He Perfected

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b4.degas.dancers.storyPhoto: National Gallery of Canada
A charcoal and pastel on tracing paper of Edgar Degas's "Dancers at the Barre" circa 1900 demonstrates the process leading up to the artist's famed painting, which took him 20 years to complete. That masterpiece is the centerpiece of the Phillips Collection exhibit "Degas's Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint."

The Phillips Collection has two of the most iconic works of French impressionism among its holdings, showering founder Duncan Phillips's already rich reputation with further treasures.

Without a doubt, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" and Edgar Degas's "Dancers at the Barre" are the crown jewels in the Phillips Collection. Both paintings represent two legendary artists at one with their oeuvre, a dazzling manifestation of their obsessions and their dreams.

Renoir's painting is a kind of perfect portrait of tactile and social happiness, people basking in his vibrant colors and light as the artist breathtakingly brings out every movement of the scene — the time of day, the flesh tones, the expressions, the energy of the splendidly casual moment that he captures with such unforgettable panache.

In Degas, we see a similar graceful fluidity — a snapshot of movement in all its multihued glory. But lurking behind "Dancers at the Barre" is the artist's famed obsession with anything and everything ballet, which consumed him for more than four decades. You can almost picture him off to the side of a rehearsal studio, drawing, sketching, working in pastel, paint and sculpture, changing and tweaking, always figuring out ways to bring his dancers to life on canvas.

That obsession — and the masterpiece it created — takes center stage in the deliriously beautiful exhibition "Degas's Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint" at the Phillips, curated with the spirit of an archeologist at a dig and the eye of an artist by Eliza Rathbone.

Degas in fact produced an astonishing 1,500-plus works depicting the world of dance, culminating in "Dancers at the Barre," which took the artist two decades to complete. A recent conservation study revealed that Degas began the painting before 1884 but revised it dramatically around 1900, according to the Phillips, intensifying its color palette, repositioning its two figures, and blurring their contours.

In addition, the exhibit features about 30 related paintings, works on paper and bronzes, created between 1870 and 1900, to trace the techniques that led to "Dancers at the Barre."

It is of course fascinating to see this evolution as well as the various incarnations of Degas's late masterwork in the form of full-scale pastel and charcoal sketches of the painting's subjects. The final piece itself also reveals much about the artist's process, largely unearthed by Phillips Head of Conservation Elizabeth Steele, who, while restoring the work after years of grime and decay, found intriguing clues as to how Degas perfected his vision over time, including evidence that he cut the canvas down after the painting was under way and repositioned the dancers' arms and legs multiple times.

b4.degas.resting.story
The exhibit features 30 other Degas dance-related works, including "Two Dancers Resting."

The constant back-and-forth struggle to realize his vision mirrors the rote, repetition and discipline inherent in ballet that seemed to entrance Degas. Yet just as he was fascinated by a dancer's graceful expressiveness, he also respected the difficult drill of routine and practice, often to the point of exhaustion, that it took to attain that grace.

And so we see dancers stretching, rehearsing, resting, posing or in flight. Degas explored the milieu of dance itself, not in any strictly accurate sense — even in that famous work, the legs seem odd, slightly disconnected to the body, but the stance itself, the sunset-reddish colors of the wall, the slightly gray flesh tones, and the stunning semi-blue tutus give you the essence of the moment, the music of a painting.

Duncan Phillips himself said of "Dancers at the Barre," which he bought in 1944, that it was a masterpiece "in its daring record of instantaneous change at a split second of observation," whereby Degas "miraculously transformed the incident of swiftly seen shapes in time into a thrilling vision of dynamic forms in space."

It's an elaborate way of saying that Degas got dance. It's plainly evident when you look at a work like "The Dance Rehearsal," which instantly conveys the swell of emotions and enduring appeal of ballet. It's why people never tire of "Swan Lake," for instance, or "The Nutcracker," with its alluring magic. Degas just gets it all, creating a true impression of dance's beauty, and the cost to achieve it.

The portrait is but a snapshot. The dancers are always female, in full perfection, or in training about to be, energized or dormant, relaxed or tense. But you grasp the full spectrum of their world in these 30-plus works that, taken together, portray Degas's grand passion. You can almost hear the quiet patter of pointed toes hitting the floor, miraculously holding up poised dancers, or their labored breath as they extend their limbs as far as possible. We see the dancers as Degas saw them, in all their artistic agility and the painstaking effort — both on their part and on his — to get there.

Degas's Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint

through Jan. 8
Phillips Collection
1600 21st St., NW
For more information, please call (202) 387-2151 or visit www.phillipscollection.org.


About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 18, 2014