Mirrors of De Gas. Part II (Ballet)

In this posting I will write about the famous ‘ballerinas’ by Degas, and specifically about the use of mirrors in these works. I will also add a few other mirrors too, but I need to start with a short intro in the context first.

Paris, the very end of 1860-х. Not so long agi, in 1867 died Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, for year a personification of the Academism in France, and in Europe in general.  A classical, academic style is what the majority of people consider as ‘true art’, and it’s what many artists want to be associated with – including Degas. Ingres is the favorite painter of Degas, he will be collecting his (and Delacroix’) works all his life.

I am planning to write a separate posting on the Ingres’ mirrors, but here is just one of the examples of his works, the famous Madame Moitessier (1856):

This type of works are the reference for young Degas, he want to paint like that, he learns to paint like that; he’ll never will. Degas is meeting Ingres in 1865, just before the death of the old master, and writes down his advise, ‘draw more lines, young man, learn to draw the lines’.

Soon Degas find his new friend, and new idol, James Tissot, who was considered by many as the ‘second Ingres’. He actually could become as famous as the first one, if not more, his popularity in Paris in the 1860-s is phenomenal.

This is an example of the painting with mirrors by Tissot, Portrait of Mlle. L.L. (1864)

It’s not clear what would happen with Degas and his art if not a personal drama that happens with Tissot, and that eventually resulted in his move from Paris to London (and also drastically changed his interests).  Degas was so close to this painter, that his style could be very much impacted by Tissot, of the latter would stay and keep working in Paris.

Take, for example, this portrait by Degas of that time (of one of his sisters, Mme Edmondo Morbilli, nee Therese De Gas (1869). Mirror-wise, it’s still just a interior elements, but the overall style of this work makes it close to more classicist paintings by the Tissot. Imagine that Degas would aimed at adding detailed, more hyper-realistic depictions, and we can see Degas becoming yet another ‘academic author’.

However, yet another revolution, this time art-revolution, was already in a making in Paris. In 1863 Édouard Manet presents his scandalous Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, and in 1866 Gustave Courbet shocks the society with his L’Origine du monde, stirring the debates about the meaning of ‘beauty’ in art.

But the discussion is not only about the subject matters of art, it’s also about the methods, tools, techniques; impressionism is on the horizon. Degas is a very active participant of these disputes that happen in various art circles. He is not an official member of art establishment, he’s not teaching, he doesn’t really need to work with the galleries and vendors, to promote his works (they are not his major income source).

Yet he is a part of art life, and all the debates and disputes that happen in various places: artist’s studios, musical salons and cafes. The pictures by Frédéric Bazille illustrates how all these things could have happen; Degas could well be on the portrayed man.

Degas is quickly becoming known as a passionate debater, sharp and observant, but also dogmatic and stiff. He is accused of arrogance, snobbery, and his ‘blue blood – that people assumed was the cause of his disrespect to the peers.

Again, it’s difficult to say now in what direction Degas could have developed; he could lean to more traditional artist from the Academy, or move toward the lastest controversial movements, such as impressionists. Today Degas is often considered as one of the first impressionists, on pair with Renoir or Monet, but in reality he never associated himself with impressionism (or any other school), was quite critical toward many of the contemporary painters, and basically has always been the thing on its own.

In 1870-71 France was in war with Prussia; Degas joined the Home Guard in Paris, and although he didn’t participate in the battlefields, he got his war burden. After a series of  night duties he gots colds and hypothermias. He later complained that the issues with his vision started after this colds (I argued earlier that they most likely aggravated already existing problem).

France lost the war, Napoleon III’s monarchy ceased to exist, and the country turned into a republic again. The time was turbulent, and troublesome, plus Degas didn’t feel well, so he decided to retreat to the United States, to New Orleans, where the relatives by mother lived. He spent next two years, recovering and also doing some painting.

There he made a work that I consider quite pivotal in his oeuvre, so called Cotton Exchange in New Orleans (1873).

It’s an interesting work if only by the fact that it remained a sole painting by Degas acquired by museum during his life. My bet that the main reason was purely ethnographic (America, cotton), because the painting was accused by the critics in the same sins as all the previous works by Degas: it was considered too static and badly composed. On top of everything, its horizon is lifted up quite hight high, it looks like the figures will start sliding toward the viewer any moment.

I think it was an accidental discovery, we can imaging that Degas observed this scene from the room of one of the traders or mangers, that could be placed on a podium of some sort. But such a viewpoint, top-down, gave an interesting solutions to his ongoing issues with flatness of his compositions; all of a suddenly, the painting got some some ‘space’, even if distorted.

When he retured to Paris in 1873 Degas witnessed significant changes in cultural life; it became more plebeian, as he noticed in one of his diary notes. For example, not only many new lower-taste forms of entertainment have emerged, such as cabaret or vaudeville, but also their audience became more diverse and mixed. Earlier fairly rigid social structure, whereby the people from his circles would go only to opera or theater, evolved into much more democratic and egalitarian cultural consumption.

In the Masterpieces in Details one of the famous pairings by Degas, Ballet Rehearsal on Stage (1874), is analyzed precisely along his lines. There is no mirrors in this work, otherwise I’d copied this analysis here in full, but I feel it’s worth to mention at least a few facts about ballet in Paris at that time.

Today ballet belongs to the area of ‘high culture’; it’s True Classical Art. Then, and there ballet was considered a low-culture form of entertainment, somewhat bordering with erotic show. The word ‘ballerina’ was not exactly a synonym of the word ‘courtesan’, but the overlap in the meanings was pretty large. Yet it became socially acceptable form of entertainment for some members of ‘high society’ (mostly for men, since many women were refusing to go, considering the shows ‘immoral’.

This is not Degas, this is a painting by some Walter Richard Sickert, a young painter from Germany who later settled in England. We see a fairly typical scene, when agitated and aroused men are watching the performance of the semi-naked girls on the scene.

Degas made his ballet paintings as if from such a balcony (including the earlier Rehearsal), employing the perspective solution similar to the Cotton Exchange. People are not posing to the painter here, they act naturally, and artist acts as a observer (a voyeur?).

When I write that he painted “as if from the balcony”, this doesn’t mean that it was en plein air in any sense. Nearly all the works by Degas are made in the the studio, where he invited the models to sit for him and only then, out of these fragmented drawings, he was assembling his larger paintings.

The works with ballerinas became a success, and Degas start receiving commissions, both from the individual collectors and galleries, and from the theaters themselves. For example, the Rehearsal above is a commission, it was ordered by the theater on the Rue Le Peletier, but by the time Degas has completed the work – as always, he worked very slowly – the theater was destroyed by fire. The painting got an additional value from the very beginning, as a documentary evidence of the theater’s interior.

During the 1870s Degas made a vast amount of works related to ballet – from large paintings in oil, to smaller pastels, to drawings and sketches; after his death Degas left about 1,200 works, and a quarter of them were related to ballet, the largest theme of his oeuvre.

Among the there are few paintings where he also depicted mirrors.

In the earlier works these are the wall-mounted stationary mirrors and large and (relatively) mobile mirrors used during classes and rehearsals:

The Dancing Class (1871)

Worth noting that it’s a fairly small work, 19 х 27 cm (basically, А4), painted on wood.

Later we see these large mirror-walls, extending the space of the classes (and to some extent, of the paintings, too).

Le Foyer de la danse à l’Opéra de la rue Le Peletier (1872)

The Dance Class (1873)

The Dance Class (1874)

                 The Dance Class (1874) – Detail, Upper Register

The appearance of such large mirrors in the paintings (and in the ballet classes themselves) also reflects a significant technological progress. First in Germany and soon in France they developed a manufacturing process capable to produce large flat mirrors of hight quality, yet relatively cheap. Until recently only the king could afford something like the Mirror Hall in the Palace of Versailles, but soon mirror walls will become an element of interior of every other cafe in Paris (the famous Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Monet is a reflection (sic!) of exactly that phenomena) .

In almost all the paintings by Degas the ‘ballet mirrors’ still play a pretty passive role; some of them do have the reflections of the ballerinas, but the later do not look into the mirrors. We don’t see, for example, the interaction between the dancer and a mirror.

I found only one exception, where the mirror and the dancer together create some sort of dynamic couple. But even in this case it’s a not a full-scale mirror, we see only a trace of, or rather a hint to this mirror on the canvas.

Dancer by the Mirror (1870)

Degas was, of course, not the first who begin to portray such formations, these ‘mirror cocoons’, but prior to that such scenes were predominantly about ‘women at their toilettes’; Degas began to portray complex interaction of the total human body with the mirror.

There is another painting (pastel) depicting a similar ‘mirror cocoon’, but it was made some ten years later, in 1879; despite presenting a dancer, the scene occurs in a dressing room, and I would rather describe it as a ‘toilette mirror’. I will talk about them later.

Dancer in her dressing room (1879)

As often happens, exceptions only confirms rule – the mirrors in the ballet series almost as unimportant (and unnecessary) as in the earlier works of Degas. They are there to represent the typical setting of the class halls, but no more; an interesting vignette.

The main content of the 1870s – the endless dancers, singly, in groups, in rehearsals for performances. The further into the ‘forest’, so to speak, the more twisted become the dancers’ poses. There is a feeling that Degas was primarily interested in twisting their bodies in the most bizarre ways.

The main focus of Degas is not the mirror, but the dancer, and their poses, that become ever more complex with time. There is a feeling that Degas is competing with himself when inventing more and more perplexed and twisted bodies.

The ballet class (1880)

Many classicist artist painted the bodies in highly accentuated poses, but Degas went much further. Both during his life and especially after he was sharply critiqued for his allegedly humiliating attitude to his female models; the word misogyny has been  mentioned frequently in this context.

What it is now seen as a symbol of ‘female beauty’ was heavily criticized by many prominent feminists from 1920-30s onward, and reached its peak around 1950s. The ‘rehabilitation’ of Degas and increased amount of such associations as ‘beauty’, ‘grace’ and ‘femininity’ are very recent phenomena:

Jonathan Ahn – In the Studio: Homage to Degas (2010)

As a way of conclusion: something (or rather someone) does appear in the ‘ballet mirrors’ of Degas…

but they are still mainly an element of decor:


The year 1874 brought a very sad event for Degas, that has changed his life pretty dramatically; his father’s bank incurs significant losses and soon is nearly bankrupt. The earlier affluence of the family is gone, and  Degas has to make money, perhaps first time in his life.

Admittedly,  he learns the business side of art very quickly. He mobilizes all his networks, visits old friends and make new ones, he meets with gallery owners, the auctioneers, and even customers (an uncommon practice at that time). We know, for instance, that he made ​​a special trip to England where he met with one of his first fans, some Henry Hill, who bought seven of his works – more than any other collector during his life.

Degas even takes commissions to illustrate books and magazines. This is not always turns to be a success – for example, the work below was refused by one of the magazines as “amoral.” I guess, we would have some difficulties to understand what was exactly immoral here.

Because the work was commissioned by a magazine, Degas painted it by pencil and pastel, it was a lot faster. But when the work was not accepted, he put a few strokes on top of it by oil, and the painting turns into a “mixed media” (and become more expensive, too; he later sold it to the same Mr. Hill.)

This could be seen as one peculiar incident, but it also bears some symbolic meaning.  I believe that during these five years, from 1875 to 1880, the style of Degas has changed more than in his entire previous life. He began to paint more quickly, and in much more relaxed, fresh and original manner.  In fact, this is the moment when he became the Degas as we know it.

Interestingly enough, it is exactly at this moment Degas (and I am tempted to add, “suddenly”) painted a unique piece that stands apart of all this ‘mirrors’ (and that I consider his best ‘mirror work’ ever).  This is his famous portrait of Madame Jeantaud in the mirror (1875), 70 х 84 см.

I would love to know more about this work; by now I read just a basic story, of who is the sitter (the wife of his former wartime friend). But I don’t know how this decision appeared to paint her with a mirror  and in such a way that the main part of the painting is in fact a reflection.

The description at the Musée d’Orsay’s website talks about “comfortable realism”, that is allegedly (still) inherent to Degas’ works. I think that the ‘truth’ is almost oposite, this is one of the most surreal of his works, both emotional and delusional, as the daydreams are. Everything melts and flows here, blurring the lines between the “real” and the “virtual”, and the mirror plays the most central role here.

I would like to return to this work later one, perhaps in a separate posting, but for now I’d at least allocate a separate icon for this painting.

At this time Degas also began to write more works depicting various public scenes, such a people in shops, cafes and theaters.

This painting, often referred as Absinthe (1876), is a good example of this type, but lso a primer of one of the most scandalous work by Degas.

The critics saw this work not only as glorification of the notorious beverage, but also a praise of the decadent lifestyle, with its alcoholism, low morale and indecency. In reality Degas invited his friends to pose for this this ‘scene in a cafe’; he later had to publicly announce that they are not ‘alcoholics’ and ‘goners’.

Funny enough, I could detect the traces of this attitude even today: look, for instance, at the cover page of the book about… emerging infectious diseases (!)

It’s all very nice and interesting… but it doesn’t have any relationships with the mirror in this painting. Which is a pity, because the mirror in this picture presents quite an interesting case. First, it  demonstrates those “signs of the times” I wrote earlier, showing the presence of the large, flat mirrors even in a relatively basic cafe in Paris by the end of 1880s. It is also an interesting use of silhouettes in the reflection, again helping to (re)create a seme-surreal atmosphere of the place.

There are few more examples of such “large mirrors in public spaces” among the works by Degas:

Portrait after a Costume Ball – Mme Dietz-Monnin (1879)

and later

At the Café des Ambassadeurs (1883)

Perhaps it’s not immediately clear where is the mirror here, but earlier monochrome version shows the mirror surface behind the singer:

Edgar Degas – Mlle Bécat at the Café des Ambassadeurs (1877)

Here is my icon for this type of the ‘Degas’ Mirrors’:

The last topic of this posting can be described as the “hidden mirrors.” I already showed, above, an example of one painting (Dancer in the dressing room, 1879) where  we see a fairly complex (inter)action between the model and the mirror. The mirror itself is also shown, albeit partly; we even some reflection there (a lamp?).

Two years earlier, in 1877, Degas painted another picture, where the interaction of the woman with a mirror even more intense, yet we don’t see any mirror surface, the mirror is turned to us by its back.

Woman combing her hair before a mirror (1877)

We can not say with certainty who’s portrayed here: perhaps, this is still a dancer, and the work thus belongs to the the ‘ballet series’. Or perhaps this is ‘just a woman’. In any case, this work makes a bridge of some sort to the next phase of Degas’ art, that preoccupied him in the beginning of 1880s.

The series can be titled as “The Mirror at the Milliner”; the depicted scenes indeed happen in the shops of he Parisian hatters.

Women do wear hats these day, but it’s far less essential item then before; in the XIX century France (and Europe in general) hats were obligatory article of clothing for women, who often couldn’t even consider leaving the house without a hat.

Here is, perhaps, the most famous work of this series – At the Milliner’s (1882):

We see a woman trying on a new hat in the store in front of the mirror. Again, we can detect here the same ‘mirror cocoon’, depicted very skillfully: the woman is fully engaged in her interaction – with herself, in fact, but this interaction is mediated by the mirror. But it’s even more complex, more social a scene, because the woman is also  oriented in some way toward the shop assistant (who holds another model in her hands).

Few more examples:

Technically speaking, there are not mirrors in this paintings (or rather there are large flat mirrors on the backgrounds of the last two works, but they don’t play a bit role).  But we definitely sensing the presence of the mirrors in the proximity, even if they are ‘hidden’ from us. The mirrors are outside the cavas, but the interaction with them is in, and very powerfully.

A very interesting example, skillfully portrayed.



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