The Truth Behind the Paris Opera Captured by Degas

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The Truth Behind the Paris Opera Captured by Degas
The 1500 or more works that Edgar Degas produced of Paris Opera ballerinas in the 19th century showed the artist’s unremitting obsession with the dancers. Not the dance. Degas had little interest in the ballet itself. It was movement and realism that he wanted to capture. The artist’s beautiful paintings, seemingly tender and evocative, belied a squalid reality behind the scenes that Degas was well aware of and observed first hand. The pitiless truth of the Foyer de la Danse was that this backstage was not a warm-up area for the ballerinas, but functioned as an upper-class meat market. Edgar Degas: Le Foyer de la danse à l’Opéra de la rue Le Peletier, Musée d’Orsay, Public Domain For in fact, to all intents and purposes, the Foyer de la Danse was little more than a brothel. The staggeringly opulent exterior and interior of the new Paris Opera was housing something putrid at its core. The Paris Opera Ballet had been founded in 1669 by King Louis XIV and was the world’s first professional ballet company. Then called the Académie Royale de Danse, the performances were usually held in the French court, and usually performed by male dancers. Portrait of Louix XIV, the Sun King. Public domain. By the early 19th century, women had been emboldened to join the ballet. The dancer Marie Taglioni not only went en pointe, feminizing ballet once and for all, but she also shortened her tutu, scandalizing society. Almost every ballerina who followed Taglioni would suffer exploitation on an industrial scale by men who considered “les petits rats,” as they were called, fair game; favors could be bartered and bought in exchange for their patronage. Indeed, the availability of these young (sometimes very young) women was factored into the design of the Opera House. Mademoiselle Taglioni poses in dance clothing with her left leg extended, Bernard Mulrenin, Victoria and Albert Museum, Public Domain

Lead photo credit : Ballet at the Paris Opéra, Edgar Degas, 1877, Art Institute of Chicago Collection, Public Domain

More in ballet, dance, Degas, Edgar Degas, Les Petits Rats, Paris Garnier, Paris Opera

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.


  • Cynthia Kulikov
    2022-07-28 09:41:10
    Cynthia Kulikov
    Thank you for an absolutely fascinating read. For years before the 19th century, the attitudes and abuse of "dancing girls" was much the same. But the details you provide really bring the topic to life!


    • Marilyn Brouwer
      2022-08-01 05:41:38
      Marilyn Brouwer
      Thank you so much for commenting Cynthia. Between the 'abonnes' and the girls' own mothers, they really had little choice but to sell themselves. Often the whole family relied on one young girl to support them all. Hard times indeed!