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The Dance Class. 1874. By Edgar Degas. Oil on Canvas. 83.5 x 77.2 cm

From a slightly raised viewpoint, The Dance Class draws you into a training session with the dance master Jules Perrot in a rehearsal room which had burnt down a year before the painting was made. He is standing firmly with a stick in hand watching a dancer intently. The composition is almost a snapshot into that moment as opposed to a traditional composition with each figure placed in an idealistic way.


In varied unguarded relatable poses, some ballerinas wait their turn while others simply watch on. Some sit, one stands akimbo while another leans against the wall. The dancer closest to the viewer with the red hair accessory seems to adjust her outfit, with a look of exhaustion as does the one behind her. Another to the left of the painting has her back turned towards the ongoing session seemingly engrossed in something else. Biting her nails, another seems rather anxious about her turn. Mothers of some of the dancers can also be seen in the background.

The artist, Edgar Degas, was influenced by Japanese prints evidenced by the asymmetry and unusual angle of the composition. He incorporates perspective with the diminishing sizes and details of the figures as you move from the foreground to the background. The frame of the painting is also cut abruptly giving it an up-close view.

All these leave a sense of wonder about the narrative and this was partly Degas’ aim: "A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people”.


Because his father wanted him to become a lawyer, Degas enrolled in a law school but dropped out eventually to pursue his interest in art. His father was still supportive of his craft, writing to him on one occasion: ‘You have taken a giant step forwards in your art, your drawing is strong, your colour tone is precise. You no longer have anything to worry about, my dear Edgar, you are progressing beautifully. Calm your mind and with tranquil and sustained effort stick to the furrow that lies before you without straying. It’s your own-it is no one else’s. Go on working calmly and keep to this path.’ Since his family was moderately wealthy, Degas had the privilege of painting for pleasure rather than as a source of livelihood. 


After Degas’ father died, however, the artist was put in a very unusual position. His brother had incurred a lot of debt and so Degas sold his house and a personal art collection leaving him with nothing to rely on. Like many artists of his time, Degas now had to live off his art. This was particularly difficult because his paintings were not of the conventional subjects but of themes he found interest in.

Edgar Degas

He joined a group of artists who would later be known as the Impressionists to form the Society of Independent Artists. Now art galleries are in abundance but at that time, there were very few of them with one official annual exhibition called the Salon. The Salon was the only way an artist could showcase his/her work. The works exhibited were selected by a jury and this jury had rejected the works of most of the Impressionists. They decided to rent a studio and have their own exhibition.


Although Degas was a key member of the group, he disliked being called an Impressionist. He regarded himself as a Realist. While the other impressionists focused on outdoor scenes and landscapes, Degas was more interested in rooms and the effect of artificial light. The others also focused mostly on colour and this blurred out most of their lines. Degas, on the other hand, was a great draughtsman and drawing was a key part of his work. One of his most cherished advice was from artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: ‘Draw lines… lots of lines, whether from memory or from life.

Despite depicting other subjects, he is known for his portrayal of dance with his signature subject being ballet dancers. To an art dealer, Degas once said ‘People call me the painter of dancing girls. It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.’ 


His works were rarely of the usual glorious on-stage appearance of these dancers. His dancers were typically behind the scenes in rehearsals, bored, sweaty or exhausted- the true lives of these dancers. At the time, ballet was a popular pastime in Paris but only wealthy influential men called Abonnés got to go backstage at a subscription fee.


Unable to afford this subscription, Degas sought help from his influential friends. To one of his prominent friends, he once wrote, ‘My dear Hecht, Have you the power to get the Opera to give me a pass for the day of the dance examination, which, so I have been told, is to be on Thursday? I have done so many of these dance examinations without having seen them that I am a little ashamed of it.” Eventually, he became an abonné and went on to create about 1500 works on ballet dancers.

As the artist grew, his eyesight progressively failed so his colours and brush strokes got bolder, scenes got blurrier and his works looked more abstract. He acknowledged this in an interview saying he was ‘trusting solely the labels on tubes of paint and to the force of habit.’ He painted less frequently devoting himself more to sculpting. 

The artist spent most of his last years alone, almost totally blind and apparently wandering the streets of Paris till he died at the age of 83. The renowned painter and sculptor succeeded in giving us a glimpse into his fascination with movement and modern realism. His works influenced many great artists such as Picasso and remain some of the most popular art from the 19th century.

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