Edgar Degas, Two Dancers on the Stage, 1874. Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 46 cm. P.1934.SC.89.

We see the stage here not straight on, but from above and to the side, as though we are sitting in a box.

This angle immediately involves us in the image, suggesting Degas’ depiction to be real rather than carefully set up.

Is this a performance or a rehearsal?

Degas purchased permits that allowed him to observe rehearsals and backstage activity at the Opéra de Paris, and many of his paintings and sculptures concentrate on dancers off the stage, stretching or chatting.

Whilst the dancers in this painting are in full costume and mid-dance, a third figure, who does not seem to be part of the main action, is partially visible on the stage, at the far left of the canvas.

Degas’ composition teeters between being casual and carefully constructed, as do the dancers themselves: in spite of their exquisite costumes, these are probably young working-class dancers from the corps de ballet as opposed to principals.

Degas gives them snub noses and slightly simian features to suggest, according to contemporary ideas of physiognomy that greatly interested him, a lower social class.


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