“Degas at the Opéra,” an excellent exhibition of Impressionist art with a theatre theme, is currently at the National Gallery of Art. We were fortunate to have had a look at this exhibition shortly before it was closed due to contemporary concerns at public gathering places. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, we have been given permission to share some images of the paintings so our readers can still get a glimpse at this wonderful assemblage of Edgar Degas’ paintings related to opera, ballet, music, and the 1800’s Parisian arts circle.
Let us enter the world of the Paris Opéra so beloved of Degas by taking our seat in the theatre box. In Degas’ pastel on paper “Theatre Box,” a woman from the theatre box is looking at the dancers on stage. The ballerinas in colorful costumes on stage are espied by the woman in darkness in the foreground of the painting. While the stage appears colorful and bright, she is an enigma in darkness with opera glasses in hand. What is her age and social status? Why is she there? Perhaps, like the Ancient Greeks, she has turned briefly away from her reality to experience a catharsis at the theatre. Viewers outside the painting (a painting enclosed in a frame suggesting a box itself) may relate to the woman in the box but will never know her story.
Let the show begin as we make use of a rare opportunity to take in a nineteenth-century ballet with Degas now seldom performed, named “La Source” or “The Spring.” In a tale of magic, love, and the exotic, the attractive and well-connected protagonist Nouredda is on an arduous journey to be betrothed to the Khan of Ghendjib. In a scene Degas depicts in his oil painting “La Source,” she and her entourage take respite by a spring, a virtual oasis in the desert. On the right, a brunette woman in a long burgundy dress is sitting on the edge of the stream bank with a faraway look towards the water, in literal and perhaps pensive reflection. To her right, a horse of the same brunette coloring is leaning in towards the water to drink. The pastel-pink slipper behind the horse and the stage-like polished sheen of the “stream” are among the few indications that this is a scene of the ballet and not of the story itself. Bright flowers are seen in the hand of Nouredda, wearing a light-blue dress and regal head covering. As her bare feet lightly touch the “water,” her hand is placed beside her face as she is perhaps torn between her prosperous life in the past and an unknown future with her husband-to-be. Meanwhile, a woman to Nouredda’s right is facing backstage as she provides entertainment on a string instrument. Just as the river flows around them in a foreground, we imagine musical notes stream down to us through time. While the painting is a rare and attractive glimpse into a nineteenth-century production of a ballet, the painting is really of Eugénie Fiocre, a famous dancer of the day at the Paris Opéra. Throughout this exhibition we will see that Degas focuses more on people (dancers, musicians, and art patrons) than the scenes and stories of the ballets and operas he attends.
Now that we have seen our ballet at the Paris Opéra, let us go onto the stage and with Degas in his pastel over monotype “The Star,” where we see a ballerina taking the spotlight on stage from the perspective of the spotlight. Red roses are seen on her white dress as she dances gracefully. On her left, behind the curtain, another ballerina is about to enter the stage, in awe of the show’s star, as she is only a side character. A stage director dressed in black is shown on her left, perhaps sternly reminding his dancers of the stage directions. Or is this a supporter and patron, testifying to the unwelcome presence of the monetary role in art played by non-artists? This is the case in the pastel over charcoal and monotype “The Curtain,” in which men in dark suits dominate the back and right side of the painting, with only one ballerina, and she just partially present, off to the side of the painting.
Opera and ballet account for little without an orchestra, so let us now wander down into the orchestra pit with Degas in his oil painting “The Orchestra of the Opéra,” where we see the stage from remarkable angle of the musicians. The painter focuses on the bassoonist at the center, yet upon reflection, the viewer realizes that the painting’s focus is equally the ballet dancers on the stage at the top of the picture. The orchestra is portrayed with utter realism, but the ballerinas high above on the stage are presented in Impressionist abstractions, as if stage art is in its own elusive world.
Art requires patrons and an arts community, so let us now meet one of Degas’ acquaintances in that community. “Madame Camus” is among a group of portraits Degas made of those in artistic and music circles in the Paris of his time. Described in the exhibition catalogue as “one of those indistinguishable passing figures that seem to awaken only at night to flit from one salon to another,” Blanche Camus is portrayed by Degas in his oil painting with a fan surrounded by orange and red tones in an image using much color structure. The woman is seated in a cadmium red dress mixed with alizarin crimson, giving it a saturated look, as the subject of the painting holds a burnt umber fan. Painted in the foreground of the painting, her appearance seems to be in shadows with similarly colored tones in a desaturated background. In an engaging technique, everything in the painting “fans out” from the fan.
Readers who would like to go beyond our brief visit to the Edgar Degas exhibition and see more of these paintings for themselves still can! Although the National Gallery of Art is closed due to the current pandemic, an excellent catalogue is procurable and has the advantage of placing these wonderful paintings of the Paris Opéra in context. While Degas was more interested in painting the dancers, art patrons, and other people associated with the Paris Opéra of his time, the scenery and settings which appear in his works are of enormous historic and artistic value today. The catalogue takes this into account, and the chapter “From Gluck to Reyer” is especially recommended for its discussion of the French response to Wagnerian operas then in vogue and for period photos such as of French productions of “Lohingrin” and Ernest Reyer’s Wagner-like opera “Sigurd.” The catalogue provides context to productions of Degas’ time and with the many reproductions of the works in the exhibition is enthusiastically recommended to enjoy “Degas at the Opéra” while the exhibition, which officially runs through July 5, remains closed.