As I sat on a sticky metal chair outside my ballet class, dreading the oncoming hour of verbal humiliation, I gazed at the pictures suspended on the wall in front of me. I was about seven or eight, what my parents called ‘spectacularly clumsy’, and lived in constant fear of being ridiculed by my peers for this — as I saw — failure of character. I was sitting, gazing up at paintings of ballerinas in perfect costumes with perfect form, wishing more than anything that I could be like them. The figures, captured in a fraction of a second, were suspended in their lithe movements, arms extended and toes perfectly pointed. They were graceful, easy in their bodies, inhabiting centre stage with poise. They brought into sharp focus everything I was not.
One of these paintings in particular caught my eye, and even now brings me back to those moments of intense jealousy and sadness outside the ballet studio. The painting is of a young ballerina, triumphant in her graceful pose, the stage lights flooding her in brightness, and her eyes closed in the sweet satisfaction of the moment of celebration. It is The Star, painted by Degas in 1878 as part of his many works of dancers. The ballerina looks a little bit like a star; dressed in white, crowned, with flowers, her arms and legs extended perfectly as she occupies space on the canvas.
At the time, I thought this painting a symbol of grace and loveliness. Now, knowing a little more about art history, I find the whole construction slightly uncanny. The light on the ballerina is unflattering, shadowing her face and rendering her leg and lower torso the brightest part of the painting. She occupies an awkward part of the painting; not quite centred either vertically or horizontally, making her seem less majestic than she would be in true centre stage.
Most importantly, Degas occupies more than a third of the canvas with a depiction of the dark wings, with partially obscured figures waiting for her to finish her performance. In particular, there is the shadowy form of a man, painted in bolder, darker strokes, standing shielded from the audience as he watches her. Suddenly, the viewer feels they are intruding, spying on the girl just as this man seems to be.
Slowly, we see another of Degas’s aims, beyond his obsession with movement, portraying pretty girls in costumes. He may be considered an Impressionist (the name for painters in the 1800s who used lots of small, thin brushstrokes that make the overall painting seem a bit hazy – think Monet’s Water Lilies), but he considered himself a realist. He vehemently disliked en plein air (outdoor) Impressionist paintings, commenting once that he wished to have an armed guard to shoot artists who were trying to paint landscapes.
Degas, on the other hand, wanted to portray a more intimate and (as he saw it) truthful view of Victorian culture and urban life; not just gardens and water lilies. Born in 1834, Degas lived in a time of photography, electricity, and urbanisation. He was surrounded by a world mutating, with a growing, seedy underbelly. As such, he painted laundresses and milliners as well as ballerinas. He did not just depict the stage in all its glory, but the classes, the practice, the warm-ups for the labour of performance.
In trying to examine a painting like The Star, it’s also crucial to remember that ballet was not known at the time as a symbol of beauty and high art. The industry was rife with sexual exploitation, with the often financially struggling young girls forced to accept money and support in exchange for sexual favours for male patrons. Often young and vulnerable, ballerinas had little choice in the arrangements if they wished to make a living and survive the cruelty of urban society of the era.
Suddenly, the shadowy man hovering in the wings of The Star seems more sinister. The ballerina, finishing her pose, dressed in white, closes her eyes in the triumph of the moment, but Degas reminds us – through the harsh light, the odd placement, and the infringement of other figures – that this was not her whole life. Maybe if I’d known all this at ten, sitting outside ballet class, I’d have been less jealous of her poise. Now, I see a picture that is still beautiful, that still celebrates movement, but also invites us to look beyond the stage, into the wings.