Degas at the Opera in Paris and Washington D.C.

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Degas at the Opera in Paris and Washington D.C.
The year 2019 marked the 350 anniversary of the National Paris Opera, founded as a royal institution in 1669, part of the Académie de Poésie et Musique under Louis XIV. The 17th century poet Pierre Perrin founded this major French cultural institution, but shortly after its launch composer Jean-Baptiste Lully took over and changed the name to the Académie royale de la Musique in 1672. After the French Revolution changed the name to the Opéra Nationale, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte decided on the Académie Impériale de la Musique in 1804. Then his nephew Napoleon III (1808-1873, president and then emperor 1841-1870) changed the name in 1848 to the Opéra-Théâtre de la National and then again, in 1854, to the Théâtre Impérial d’Opéra. Under Napoleon III, the Garnier Opera House came into existence in 1875, which we associate with the musical Phantom of the Opéra. In 1990, the Opéra Batille (Opéra de Paris) became the major venue, while the Palais Garnier continues to host performances of the Paris Ballet. However, during the youth of French artist Edgar Degas, the Opéra Le Peletier, located in the Salle Le Peletier, reigned supreme. Built in 1821, it burned down in 1873. Hence, we learn immediately while touring the exhibition Degas at the Opera, the Musée d’Orsay’s lavish contribution to the Paris Opera’s landmark birthday celebration, that these paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures come from Degas’ imagination based on his memory of the ballet performances at the Salle Le Peletier. In a lithograph of the Salle Le Peletier, the artist offers portraits of the principle dancers and male patrons of the ballet, such as Ludovic Halévy, Alfred de Musset, and renowned dandy Charles Lautour-Mézéray, whose loge at the opera became the hotspot for society’s sexy flirtations. Degas’s characterization of ballerinas with beaux seems to imply a shadier meaning, introducing backstage sugardaddies who seem to lounge in the wings watching their “girls.” This sordid side of the opulent Paris Opera may be one way to analyze these 200 examples of Degas’ 1500 Paris Opera images. However, to my eyes, Degas at the Opera enhances the study of this particular artist’s prodigious study of women’s bodies. Degas explored the female body in motion and at rest in various situations. Here we see his famous ballet dancers. He also drew and painted laundresses, milliners, acrobats, cabaret singers, and socialites. His earliest paintings from 1857 carefully describe Italian women in so-called “peasant” dress. His late sculptures made of wax depict female nudes posing in ballet positions and in the midst of their bathing routines. These wax figures were cast in bronze after his death in 1917. Degas’ ballet works began in 1867 with the Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the Ballet “La Source,” ca. 1867-1868, and continued through to his late sculptures circa 1910-11. We believe that he ceased to create any art in 1912. Therefore, we learn in this exhibition that ballet inspired Degas most of his life and his ambivalent obsession with women remains cloaked in mystery, regardless of all the nasty comments still on record that lead us to believe he simply hated women. My intuition believes that Degas masked his true feelings. His interpretations of various women’s bodies intensified his commitment to Realism, his concept of Realism, which, he felt, revealed unvarnished truths about human existence through depicting ordinary human behavior. Nevertheless, Degas’ gaze was not compassionate, but instead highly judgmental. Often he launched cruel insults indiscriminately and was called out for his bad behavior. Degas never learned. He couldn’t understand why speaking honestly should come between friends. As a young artist, Degas created psychologically revealing scenes, such as his aunt’s troubled marriage in The Bellelli Family, 1858-67, on view at the Musée d’Orsay. However, as his poor eyesight continued to diminish, Degas ceased to scrutinize faces, preferring poses that convey psychological content. In this respect, the act of painting, drawing and sculpting women’s bodies fulfilled a need, perhaps even soothed his secret pain. One wonders if Degas ever felt loved. As far as we know, he never committed to any long…

Lead photo credit : Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Ballet Dancers, 1877, pastel and gouache over monotype, overall: 29.7 x 26.9 cm (11 11/16 x 10 9/16 inches), framed: 46.6 x 43.5 x 6.3 cm (18 3/8 x 17 1//8 x 2 ½ inches), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Alisa Mellon Bruce Collection

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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Mercy College in Westchester, New York. She published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art." Her most recent book is a translation and annotation of "Pablo Picasso, André Salmon and 'Young French Painting,'" with an introduction by Jacqueline Gojard.


  • Lauren Kahn
    2020-09-13 04:12:28
    Lauren Kahn
    The exhibition was extended thru October 12th at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, thru October 12th due to the pandemic. You are advised to book ahead for timed tickets. However, when I was there, some tickets were available at the door. For more details, see the NGA website. Please note that only the ground floor of the West Building of NGA is open. Near the exhibit there are also Degas & Rodin sculptures from the NGA's collection exhibited in their normal place, so you can see those as well.