Degas' sumptuous pastel Le Ballet captures the pageantry and inner workings of a production at the Paris ballet in all of its complexity. From a vantage point backstage where a group of dancers chat with each other and a gentleman patron, Degas portrays the troupe making their entrance onto the stage in a unified pirouette. The electric-brightness of his pastels flood the background with color, illuminating the performers as they dance before a live audience. The green, pink and orange lights from the stage reflect off the skin of the dancers on the right as they hurry into position and shadow the animated face of the figure on the left, who gestures to her fellow dancers. The proximity of Degas to these dancers allowed him to capture them in these informal moments, often revealing the immense artifice and effort that went into staging these elaborate productions at Charles Garnier's palatial opera house. Degas even wrote about the remarkable conceptual transformation of the dancers as they moved from the wings to the stage:
Go forth, without the help of useless beauty
my little darlings, with your common face.
Leap shamelessly, you priestesses of grace!
The dance instills in you something that sets you apart,
Something heroic and remote. One knows that in your world
Queens are made of distance and greasepaint. (E. Degas, Sonnet V, circa 1889, quoted in Degas and the Dance (ex. cat.), The Detroit Institute of Arts & The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002-03, p. 157)
As his sonnet implies, Degas was keenly aware of the humanity of the dancers beyond the masking aid of glamorous costumes and make-up. His behind-the-scenes participation allowed him access to details of the dancers' practices that were otherwise unseen. By the late 1870s and into the 1880s he attended both the performances and the rehearsal, and he was well-known among the members of the company. At such close view he could render them with his pastels in the midst of a staged production and in their more intimate moments when their movements were wholly unchoreographed (fig. 2). The present work from the mid-1880s is a rare depiction of both views, presented from the wings of the stage where the production is underway. As Richard Kendall and Jill De Vonyar state, "no one observed more closely than Degas, who wrote these verses in the late 1880s, the process by which 'common' Opéra dancers were transformed -- through makeup, stylized costumes, and the distance between the proscenium and the audience -- into 'priestesses of grace.' Much of his own art was concerned with this metamorphosis: research has increasingly revealed the extent to which his performance images were rooted in firsthand experience of the state rather than in his painterly imagination" (J. De Vonyar & R. Kendall, ibid.).
While the elements of the performance are somewhat straight-forward, what is going on in the wings among the shadowy gentleman in the corner and the group of dancers huddled around him is the subject of much art historical consideration. The men who gathered backstage at the ballet were season-ticket holders, or abonnés, whose privilege included mingling with the dancers backstage or in the sumptuous foyers of the Garnier. Degas' inclusion of the abonné here is understood to be a reference to the sexual exchanges that often occurred between the ballerina and her patron, who is relegated to the shadows of the composition. As Eunice Lipton writes, "The abonnés dressed in formal black garb and top hats present in these paintings are enigmatic personages.... We must remember who the abonnés were in real life. Comte Fleury in the late 1860s portrayed one, the Prince de Galles, as being 'as assiduous at the track... as in the dance foyer.' Another, the duc Ludovic de Gramont-Caderousse, he termed an 'arbiter of elegance.. on the turf or in the wings.' A dance historian has noted that 'the President of the Jockey [Club], the Vicomte Paul Daru, irreproachable alike in manners in dress, would stride about the Foyer de la Danse like a Sultan in a seraglio.' If the power of these men was dwindling, they were nonetheless commanding presences. Yet Degas' depictions of them do not demand respect. On the contrary, his paintings marginalize, truncate, and caricature them. Remarkably, none of his contemporaries commented on this" (E. Lipton, Looking at Degas, Uneasy Images of Women and Modern Life, Berkeley, 1986, pp. 112-13).
Pastel on paper laid down on the artist's prepared board
Paris, Galerie Paul Rosenberg, Dessins et pastels de Degas, 1932, no. 22
22 by 25 1/8 in. 55.8 by 63.8 cm
Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, vol. III, Paris, 1946, no. 838, illustrated p. 484
Sale: Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 1ère vente Degas, May 8, 1918, lot 242
Galerie Danthon, Paris (probably acquired at the above sale)
M & Mme Riché, Paris (acquired from the above)
R. Gérard, Paris
Acquired in the 1930s in Paris by the grandfather of the present owner