From eye to brush: keen observations

In 1874, two or three years after Degas had painted this little picture (which measures no more than 7 3/4 by 10 1/2inches), Edmond de Goncourt, on a visit to the artist's studio, commented that ''out of all the artists I have met so far (Degas) has best been able, in representing modern life, to catch the spirit of that life.'' This tells us much about Degas' particular approach to ''modern life.'' Two of the subjects that most absorbed his attentions at that time were Parisian laundry girls and girls (coming from no less deprived backgrounds) who were rigorously trained from an early age as ballet-dancers for the Paris Opera.

From his very first paintings of them, as ''The Dancing Class'' shows, he betrays considerable sympathy and understanding of these dancers - for whom existence was not all roses and sequins. He is far from depicting them merely as prettily dressed puppets. He is more observant and more honest than that. Each girl is seen to have individual characteristics, even though they are all moulded by the exertion and discipline of uniform patterns of movement, and their grace is tinged, even when poised ready for performance, with a kind of truthful awkwardness. When they are unselfconsciously at rest, waiting in the wings, leaning on a piano, chatting, they are even more of a mixture, as Degas shows them, of the gauche and the charming. A sonnet he wrote later in his career called Petite Danseuse confirms his awareness that these gamins ailes who give their lives to the enchantment of the dance, are nevertheless not very far from the hard realism of the street. A slight twist of events, and the same girls might have been ironing shirts in a laundry.

In one sense, Degas is not so much transposing the beauty of ballet to canvas (or in this case, wood) as he is depicting the backstage activity of the people involved in it - what Theodore Reff has called ''the mundane reality behind the theatrical illusion.'' It is this element of straight observation in Degas that saves his ballet pictures from sentimentality.

However, he was an artist of many levels. The novelist Zola criticized him for being more concerned with art than with life. He maintained that there were no painters of the modern movement who had achieved as much as at least three contemporary writers had. Somebody suggested Degas, but Zola replied: ''I cannot accept a man who shuts himself up all his life to draw a ballet-girl as ranking co-equal in dignity and power with Flaubert, Daudet, and Goncourt.'' It does indeed seem that much of Degas' fascination for ballet was as an art-form which closely paralleled his own. The dancer moves across the floorboards in a similar way to the forms arranged by a painter on his canvas. Dancers are as much in the business of making figures relate, group, separate, balance, turn, extend, as the traditional figure painter: and however modern his subject matter was, Degas was in many ways a strong traditionalist.

Classical sculptures, the paintings of Velazquez, Ingres, Delacroix, and Japanese prints, all contributed to his own originality. Echoes and qualities of every one of these precedents can be perceived quite easily in ''The Dancing Class.'' The 17th-century Dutch pictures of interiors have also clearly taught him how to build into his picture an interplay of things and people, the animate and the inanimate, all contained in a quiet geometry of walls and doorways, illuminated by a number of differing and indirect sources of light.

Degas's interest in composition of ballet dancers grew after his small beginning into one off his main preoccupations, and finally it led him into sculpture. One can see the seeds of that development in ''The Dancing Class,'' where he is consciously exploring from every possible angle (even to the use of mirror reflections) the same basic figure. Sculpture was a logical outcome of this, enabling him to work in an all-round, three-dimensional way on a single figure without such an ingenious contrivance or such multiplicity. As one looksat ''The Dancing Class,'' it is not easy to be sure that it was movement itself which intrigued Degas, so much as the possibility of exploring the full three dimensionality of the figure which the many positions of a whole group of dancers offered him.

After his studio visit, Goncourt described having seen Degas ''up on his toes and with arms curved, blending the aesthetics of the dance-master with the aesthetics of the painter.'' Perhaps this amused observation came nearer to the centre of Degas's creative resources than the writer realized: he was certainly a master at organizing figures in space.

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