Ballet and Beyond: Edgar Degas’ Most Important Paintings 

One of the most influential painters of the late 19th century, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was a pioneer of the Impressionist pursuit to paint modern life. He channeled the energy and people of modern Paris into a dynamic body of work that feels as fresh today as it did over a century ago. You might know Degas best by his iconic paintings of ballet dancers, but these masterpieces only scratch the surface of his repertoire. In this article, we dive deep into Degas’ world to showcase some of his most famous works, to ballet dancers and beyond, in some of the world’s most prestigious collections. 

A Dip into Degas’ Life

Though his parents hoped he would become a lawyer, Edgar Degas instead pursued painting as a young man. Fueled by his work as a registered art copyist at the famed Louvre Museum in Paris, Degas was further inspired by a brief mentorship under Romantic painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and by training at the École des Beaux-Arts in the 1850s. His early inclinations were towards scenes from history, which he continued to explore while traveling through Italy in the subsequent years. Following his return to Paris, however, his subject matter began to shift. 

By the mid-1860s, Degas’s artistic focus had moved into Realism, with a fascination around subjects taken from the modern day. Ballet entered Degas’ purview around this time, but he also focused a similar lens on scenes ranging from the fairgrounds to café culture. It was only after these evolutions that Degas became acquainted with the Impressionists, who held their first exhibition in 1874. This was a period of increasing acclaim for the artist, but by the century’s end he had fallen into obscurity. Failing eyesight and fractured friendships resulted in a rather disconsolate Degas. He stopped making art around the turn of the century until he died in 1917. Nevertheless, Degas left behind an artistic legacy that still today garners significant accolades.

The Most Brilliant of Degas’ Ballet Dancers

A look at Degas’ impressive career would be incomplete without including several scenes from the ballet world. Reports suggest that Degas completed more than 1,000 different works featuring dancers, many of which offer discrete views of the stage and studio from Degas’ unique perspective. Of this substantial pool, several rise to the top:

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class.

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class.

The Dance Class (1874), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Featured in the 1876 Impressionist exhibition, The Dance Class reveals some of the chaos of the Paris Opéra Ballet’s studio. At the center, a young dancer is poised in a perfect “attitude” ballet pose while her dance master, Jules Perrot, scrutinizes her posture. Beyond this composed duo, the work is a tumult of activity. Dancers – some joined by their mothers – observe themselves in the mirror or casually watch as the central dancer is critiqued; meanwhile, in the foreground, even more dancers adjust their costumes perhaps in preparation to perform next. The sheer energy that Degas conveys – amplified by this innovative perspective on the scene – captures the reality of preparation for stage performances. This honesty – combined with the close connection Degas creates between his audience and his subjects – contributes to the compelling nature of these works.

Edgar Degas, The Star.

Edgar Degas, The Star.

The Star (1879-81), Art Institute of Chicago

Beyond studio studies like The Dance Class, Degas also relayed the art of stage performance. Taking a vantage from the wings, he showcased a novel perspective on both on-stage rehearsals – seen in works like Ballet Rehearsal on Stage (1874) – and performances. The latter is seen in The Star, a pastel work that portrays a young dancer mid-choreography. The sea of the ballet corps behind her becomes a wash of color that accentuates the subtleties of her gentle pose. Thanks to the medium of pastel, which became Degas’ primary medium in 1876, this prima ballerina – identified as Spanish dancer Rosita Mauri – glows via soft hues that meld seamlessly together and give a realist feel to the drape of her tulle skirt and waves of her dark locks. 

Edgar Degas, Blue Dancers.

Edgar Degas, Blue Dancers.

Blue Dancers (1897), Pushkin Museum, Moscow

One of Degas’ later ballet scenes, perhaps composed as his eyesight was failing, Blue Dancers nevertheless captivates viewers with its powerful use of color and dynamic perspective. Positioning the viewer as if gazing down upon these dancers from above, Degas’ pastel conveys an intimate connection given the close cropping of the scene. Thanks to this intimacy, the viewer feels as if they too are mingling among these frilly blue costumes as these dancers make the final adjustments before heading on stage. 

Beyond the Ballet: Degas’ Most Celebrated Paintings 

Degas’ dancers are undoubtedly compelling and showcase his ability to convey the vivacity and honesty of individual expressions. These talents were also brilliantly demonstrated across other subjects tackled by the artist. Let’s take off those tutus and look at some of his other landmark works: 

The Bellelli Family (1858-1867), Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family.

Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family.

One of the earliest works of Degas’ career, The Bellelli Family portrays the artist’s aunt, Laura; her husband, Gennaro Bellelli; and their two daughters, Giulia and Giovanna. Degas visited Laura’s family in Florence during his student days in Italy and purportedly experienced a tension between family members that is visible in this finished oil-on-canvas composition. An air of unhappiness and disconnection can be seen across all four figures, and the subdued palette reinforces the sensation that discord dominated the family dynamic. The fact that Degas could so artfully hint at this disharmony in such a powerful portrait speaks to his considerable skill, even as a young artist, to capture the emotional environment so well. 

Interior (1868-1869), Philadelphia Museum of Art

Edgar Degas, Interior.

Edgar Degas, Interior.

Theatrical yet beguiling given its enigmatic subject, Degas’ Interior (also known as The Raperemains one of the artist’s most iconic early works thanks to its dramatic yet straightforward scene. This oil-on-canvas painting depicts a dim interior lit by a single lamp at the center that illuminates the contour of a young woman’s back. She wears a simple chemise in a state of undress, a strong contrast to the man, standing opposite by the door, who wears a crisply composed suit. What narrative Degas intended to convey here is the source of significant speculation, with some attempting to connect it to both literature and stage plays, it is without a doubt a triumph in the artist’s portrayal of reality – to the point of discomfort for the viewer. Regardless, it parallels Degas’ contemporaneous ballet scenes in its ability to convey the stillness of the moment shown in the painting. 

A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873), Musè des Beaux Arts, Pau

Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans.

Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans.

Degas had family connections around the globe, including links in the American port city of New Orleans. Degas visited this branch of his family in 1872 and while in the city continued to work. The result of these efforts was A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873). The painting depicts the office of his uncle, Michel Musson. Some in the scene are busy sorting through cotton, while others are at work, presumably preparing paperwork for brokering cotton sales or for shipping. Unique in Degas’ career as it is one of the few works he completed while in the United States, A Cotton Office in New Orleans also demonstrates the type of everyday scenes that would become so central to Impressionism. 

The Absinthe Drinker (1875), Musée d’Orsay, Paris 

Edgar Degas, The Absinthe Drinker.

Edgar Degas, The Absinthe Drinker.

The Absinth Drinker is one of Degas’ most striking works because it conveys such unexpectedly palpable emotion. Looking into a cafe, this oil-on-canvas painting reveals a couple taking an absinthe cocktail. Rather than create a buoyant bar atmosphere, Degas instead captures a visceral, depressive scene. The two figures sit side by side yet slump away from one another as if they are not even aware of the other’s presence. The man appears disheveled, and the woman, though finely dressed, seems rumpled and completely lost in thought. Her hunched shoulders and kicked-up feet would have violated contemporary norms for polite presentation, but the dazed expression she wears confirms that propriety is far from her mind. This work proved scandalous primarily because of its honest look at contemporary life across social strata, reminding us of Degas’ pursuit of realism in this period. 

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop.

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop.

The Millinery Shop (1879-86), Art Institute of Chicago

Offering a glimpse into the shopping culture of late 19th-century Paris, Degas’ pastel The Millinery Shop depicts a young woman who seems to hold a hat pin in her mouth as she prepares to place the chapeau she holds in her gloved hands. Cleverly designed such that the green hat on display in front of this woman seems to also rest on her head, Degas’ composition captivates with its rich colors that balance the parallel sense of quietude that the painting elicits. 

Edgar Degas, After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself.

Edgar Degas, After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself.

After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself (1890-1895), National Gallery, London

In the same way as The Millinery Shop, Degas’ pastel After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself presents a view that is simultaneously evocative and anonymous. Entering the scene from behind this partially nude woman, the viewer is privy to what otherwise would be a private moment: a woman in the act of drying herself after bathing. We don’t learn her identity as her head is obscured beneath the towel, yet Degas’ painting nevertheless conveys a powerful sense of connection with this woman who comes to life through layered veils of pastel color. 

Race Horses (1885-1888), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Edgar Degas, Race Horses.

Edgar Degas, Race Horses.

Similar to the ballet, Degas appeared to have a particular affinity for the race course as it offered another space to study modern entertainments while also seeking a sense of immediacy in his compositions. Degas captured numerous scenes of jockeys on horseback, but his pastel Race Horses is one of his most successful thanks to the fantastic array of figures he captured. From the prancing horse in the middle to the galloping steed beyond, Degas showcased his affinity for the immediacy of such movement. At the same time, Degas experimented with an economical application of color, relying on the warm tones of the wood panel to serve as the foundational means to bring his figures to life. 

Deciphering Degas

From the dancer’s pause before the next choreographed sequence to the weighty exhale of a woman overcome by her absinthe, Degas’ paintings demonstrate an impressive combination of momentary immediacy with undeniable honesty that transports the viewer to the very seconds depicted. What this selection of works should illustrate is that Degas deserves acclaim for much more than his ballet dancers. Of course his prima ballerinas are perfect in the way they use soft modeling and rich colors to bring dancing scenes to life. At the same time, though, a look at the wider body of work that Degas created reveals even more of his talents in terms of his versatility of subject and endless pursuit of such evocative emotion in his work.