The Dance Lesson, Edgar Degas
This wonderfully brushy oil painting — that has some of the textural feeling of the artist’s pastels — is the first of a series of works on the theme of ballet dancers training or preparing for performances, that are remarkable for their daring break from the compositional conventions of preceding centuries.
The severely horizontal format might be thought of these days as “cinematic”, a term that had no meaning twenty years before the invention of motion pictures.
The empty areas of the canvas — the large area of wall above the dancer to our left, and the expanse of floor beneath the dancers on our right — have a precedent in the aesthetics of the Japanese woodblock prints that were popular in Europe during that period; Degas’ use of the space, however, is unusual and quite daring.
The “blank” area of the wall is emphasized by the framed picture to the far end — grouped as a shape with the middle ground figures — and the way the foreground dancer’s figure is completely below the line of color at the bottom of that space. We are forced to recognize the wall area as a form, not just a background.
Likewise the area of the floor, emphasized by its texture and the play of light from the windows, becomes an object of attention, particularly from our odd point of view, which seems to be looking downward as if from a slight height.
The way the strong diagonal arrangement of the figures, and their position in perspective, draws you back into the composition is remarkable.
Though the overall tone seems muted in subdued light, up close the intensity of the color and texture which which Degas has rendered his subjects is striking.