Representations of Movement in the Art of Edgar Degas

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  • 0:01 Edgar Degas
  • 0:45 Ballet Scenes
  • 2:14 Motion in Other Scenes
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the art of Edgar Degas and discover how he managed to create a distinct sense of motion in his paintings. Then, test your knowledge with a brief quiz.

Edgar Degas

This is Edgar Degas, a French painter of the 19th century:


Like most French painters of the 19th century, he was a big deal. And he knew it. But enough about him, let's talk about his art. Degas was a major figure in the Impressionist movement, the style that sought to capture moments passing through time. Funny thing is, there are a lot of things about his art that are very non-impressionist-y. He didn't paint outside, he carefully planned his scenes, and he rarely used the rough brushstrokes so famous in impressionist work. However, where he really captured the impressionist spirit was in his ability to capture a simple thing: movement.

Ballet Scenes

Many of Degas' most famous works are scenes of ballet dancers, like this one, The Rehearsal, painted in 1874:

the rehearsal

Remember what I said about Degas' technique, carefully planning out his compositions? The incredible thing about his work is the ability to make the image look spontaneous, even if it isn't. Just look at this painting.

Normal artistic logic states that the subject should be in the center of a painting, but the center of this painting is an empty floor. The seemingly arbitrary placement of the dancers is what makes this feel like a passing moment in time, the impression of a ballet rehearsal. Beyond that, though, the dancers are caught in the middle of exercises - stretching, twirling, and resting. Degas' true gift is his ability to capture what could have been awkward frozen scenes of motion and making them feel alive.

Here's another great example:

dance class

This is Dance Class, completed in 1871. Like I said, Degas painted a lot of dancers. We see similar themes here, such as the almost arbitrary placement of figures caught in various poses and the flat, open spaces. Again, the goal is to create the impression of a single moment, not caught in time but passing through time. There are ways to capture moments so that the figures seem frozen in time, but that is not Degas' intention. He presents his subjects as if they are still moving, and the viewer has simply walked in and glimpsed the scene.

Motion in Other Scenes

Degas' talent for motion went beyond the dance studio. Check out this piece, Place de la Concorde, painted in 1875:

place de la concorde

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