Degas: Opéra Superfan


“Degas at the Opéra,” in Paris now and Washington in March, reveals the leering intensity rather than the sentimentality in Degas’s ballet and opera pictures. Credit…The National Gallery of Art.

This painter who “didn’t like women,” in van Gogh’s estimation, found at the Opéra [de Paris] an arena of desire and depredation that he could translate into pure form — beautiful and stifling, modern and cold. This is the truth about superfans: they smother what they love.

Jason Farago writes about the louche milieu that spawned images of dancers that are now “schmaltzy stalwarts of dorm-room posters.”

In the year 1885 alone, Degas went 55 times to the still-new Palais Garnier. He saw one opera… at least 37 times… In late 19th-century Paris, opera was a social spectacle that made it an ideal subject for a painter of modern life… Degas went as often as he could afford it… He trained his eye on both the stage and the audience…


Marie van Goethem, the model for Degas’s “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” was an example of the shaky social status of 19th-century dancers. Credit…RMN-Grand Palais; Musée d’Orsay; René-Gabriel Ojeda.

Belgian-born Marie van Goethem was the model for Degas’s statue “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.”

Instead of capturing her mid-plié, Degas chose to sculpt her standing in the awkward fourth position, feet perpendicular to the torso and pointing in opposite directions. He gave her a sharp jaw and a forehead like a ski slope. To her body he affixed a real tutu, and real human hair… “Why is she so ugly?” wrote the critic for Le Temps…


Degas’s dancers appear more often like possessions than fellow artists. They are working girls, bent over, tying their slippers, slumped in the corner. Credit…National Gallery of Art.

… In Degas’s… superficially sunnier pastels, the dancers… are working girls, bent over, tying their slippers, slumped in the corner — rarely elegant, and always being watched… Degas was an intense misogynist, and the formal innovations of his art went together with an avaricious [?] focus on control… “I have perhaps,” he once confessed, “too often considered woman as an animal.”

(Jason Farago, “Degas: A Superfan at the Opera, Where Art Tips Into Obsession,” NYTimes, 11-15-19)

(c) 2019 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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