Subject Matter

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage, c. 1874, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Degas gained public acclaim by the 1880s. He was famous first for his racetrack scenes, then for his scenes of ballerinas. Degas became a regular fixture at the Paris Opera, attending rehearsals and lessons to execute studies. His portrayals were unusual and complex, hinting at a great enigma within the subject matter. Degas often depicted the decaying power dynamics of the ballet, whereimpoverished young women (and children) were accepted into the ballet corps under the questionablyintentioned patronage of wealthy older men. Degas, always unsparing in his portrayals, occasionally shows us the shadowy legs of these patrons waiting in the wings in ballet rehearsals. Degas’ paintings also showed the intense physical rigors and exhaustion of the ballerinas in training.

Degas also gained recognition for his urban subject matter and the complexity of images of lower-class denizens of Paris: café concert singers, circus performers, laundresses, prostitutes, and women at the bath (nudes). At the end of his career, Degas ventured into painting landscapes. This was in open competition with Monet and Cézanne, who were famous for their landscapes. Degas also painted many portraits throughout his career. He painted the portraits only of friends and family; he never accepted commissions.