Downtown Washington, D.C., is a ghost town these days, with virtually the entire federal government and supporting professional workforce long ago sent home by the pandemic shutdown. The Smithsonian has only recently opened its doors again. The National Gallery was a touch bolder, cautiously reopening to the general public on July 20. Its reopening was subject to masks and limited timed-entry slots, but it allowed for a renewed run of this exhibition of works by Edgar Degas (1834–1917), “Degas at the Opéra,” which originally opened on March 11.
Note: “Opéra,” not “opera.” The exhibition’s subject is not Degas’ impressions of opera as an art form, but rather his creative work in and around the milieu of the Paris Opéra, the French capital’s storied performing arts institution. Historically, the Opéra has presented both opera and ballet, the latter of which interested Degas far more than the former. Shared with Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, which mounted it in the latter months of 2019 to celebrate the three-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the Opéra’s founding, this exhibition mainly features works from American collections, including a large number from the National Gallery itself. They chronicle in illuminating detail Degas’ interest in the less visible aspects of the theatrical experience—rehearsals, backstage drama, action in the wings, the orchestral musicians, the audience, and other perspectives that the artist observed, remembered, or, as was often the case, imagined.
The exhibition opens with a seminal work, The Ballet from “Robert le Diable” (1871–72), a painting of a dance sequence that occurs within an opera. The titular opera was composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer in the French “grand opera” style. This canvas reflects Degas’ attraction to the contrast between performance and audience. The bottom third of the painting depicts a group of male spectators who are mostly ignoring the action on stage, which consists of a dance sequence for a cast of possessed nuns. The most prominent figure among the spectators is a middle-aged man, who pointedly looks through his opera glasses away from the stage and up toward the boxes and, presumably, at the female spectators therein. The nuns, dressed in white, are painted with dynamic motion and sweeping brushwork that obscures their individual figures. Presented alongside the painting are neater studies of the nuns in monochrome sepia.
Degas’ interest in the human surroundings of performance radiates throughout a number of his other works. His Portrait of Eugénie Fiocre (1867) depicts that leading dancer in the principal role of Léo Délibes and Ludwig Minkus’s ballet La Source but eschews any depiction of dance or character in favor of a sumptuous portrait of Fiocre simply looking wan and tired in exotic costume. An homage more to the woman than to her art form, it precedes a room containing The Orchestra of the Opéra (1870), a painting which foregrounds the ensemble of musicians while limiting the view of the stage to the pink tutus of the dancers, whose heads are cropped by the top edge of the frame. In a moment of personal license, Degas imaginatively rearranged the orchestra to reduce it in size, place the musicians in profile rather than facing away from the spectator, and center his friend, the bassoonist Désiré Dihau, where the concertmaster violinist should be. This picture also features the composer Emmanuel Chabrier peering out of a box.
The world of performers beyond the stage also captivated Degas. Rehearsals were not open to the general public, nor to him, but his imagination allowed him to produce evocative paintings of the ballet in preparation. Such paintings as The Rehearsal (1874) and Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper (1884) present unvarnished views of awkwardness in movement: the dancers’ poses and footwork express less the perfection toward which instruction aims than the stumbles and errors inevitably encountered along that path. The surrounding studies done in pastel illustrate the movements of muscle that Degas later used in the paintings. His series of elongated panels and decorative fans telescope the figures and their environments in panoramas that recall the much larger processional masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance in their representation of figures serially deployed to create a larger scene. In the iconic Dance Class (1873–76), among other works, Degas imagines the Opéra’s longtime ballet master Jules Perrot presiding over his pupils, even though Perrot’s association with the theater preceded Degas’ major working period by several decades.
Perhaps the most striking work comes at the end of the exhibit, in Degas’ sculpture Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (1878–81), an image of the ballet pupil Marie van Goethem, who was dismissed from her studies for poor conduct and frequent absences and, never having mastered the graceful movements required by her art form, offered a model for the raw and unfinished qualities that Degas sought to convey in painting. Derided as hideous at its unveiling, Little Dancer and the story behind it developed a sort of cult following and were even the subject of a new ballet staged by the Opéra in 2010 (on display here in a video installation).
The stage itself emerged in unusual perspectives. Before Curtain-Rise (1892), done in pastel on paper, looks at a downward angle on the last moments prior to the curtain going up, when a dresser whose work resembles genuflection puts the final touches on a dancer’s bright green costume. The Star (1876–77) shows a prima ballerina in the throes of movement, as she would be seen from a slightly elevated box at just above stage right. Here a pale white light radiates across the figure in a preternatural shade suggesting moonlight, as visible spectators in the wings enjoy their own unique perspective of her. Dancer Readjusting Her Strap (1889) captures backstage intimacy in a ballerina’s nervous attention to her costume as a colleague motions her onstage to perform.
As Degas encountered Impressionism later in his career, he nodded to the newer school with what he called “orgies of color,” larger-scale pastel works featuring flatter forms, deeper textures, and bolder and more vibrant hues. Degas’ earlier Portrait of Rose Caron (1892) abstracts and even obscures the features of its subject, a famous dramatic soprano whom Degas knew well, while emphasizing her pale, elongated arms as she reclines and slides on a glove.
From the first explanatory panel, we are warned that Degas included depictions of “dark suited ‘subscribers’ (male season ticket holders) lurking in the wings.” “These wealthy and powerful men,” the text alerts us, “were allowed backstage where they could prey upon the young ballerinas whose poverty and inferior social position made them vulnerable to exploitation.” The wall text ignores that Degas himself became a ballet subscriber in 1885, and was thus one of the evil old rich men he is imagined to have castigated in his art. But no evidence suggests that he engaged in any criticism of himself, his fellow subscribers, or their alleged behavior, as the exhibition would have us believe.