Created around 1876, the artwork depicts a single ballerina dancing on stage. The theater lights shine so brightly on her, that she shines like a star in the night sky.
The Prima Ballerina in the painting is actually the Spanish dancer Rosita Mauri. She moved from Catalonia to Paris in the late 1870s.
Mauri gained significant acclaim at the Paris Opéra during this period, explaining her heightened position as the company’s Prima Ballerina.
In the painting, the woman dances “en pointe” (meaning on the tips of her toes), balancing gracefully and elegantly on one leg. She performs her “pas seul”, leaping towards the orchestra pit with abandon.
Painted with Degas’ characteristically skilled draftsmanship and obsession with figure, she dominates center stage. The viewer transforms into her adoring audience.
Mauri’s white dress is decorated with flowers, whilst a black ribbon flies out behind her. Her eyes gently close, savoring the sweet moment at the end of a successful performance. The blush on her cheeks is just visible, suggesting the athleticism of her movements.
Edgar Degas Dancers paintings have come to typify his artworks. More than half his paintings depict dancers and ballerinas.
Fascinated by their unpredictable life and comparatively low social standing, Degas returned to painting ballet scenes repeatedly.
He also painted other depictions of women at work, for instance milliners, laundresses, singers and bar staff. This includes famous paintings such as The Millinery Shop (1882), The Singer in Green (1884) and Woman Ironing (1887).
Most Edgar Degas ballerina paintings featured women rehearsing backstage. This emphasized their nature as professionals completing a job. In The Star, we also gain a rare glimpse into the background workings of Parisian theater, with fellow dancers and managers waiting in the wings.
Around this time, photography became popular. This allowed Degas to explore his fascination with movement even further, resulting in the quick brushstrokes and fleeting moments depicted in his ballerina artworks.
As well as his personal interest in the theme, Degas ballet paintings sold well. The artist consequently returned to the genre throughout his career. This helped raise money for his brother, whose debts nearly left the family bankrupt.
This impressionist oil painting characterizes the movement’s luminous hope for the future, mixed with slight elements of trepidation. Alongside many other artists of the time, Degas approached the coming century with mixed feelings of optimism and uncertainty.
Whilst the painting represents the fleeting beauty of everyday life, there’s a sense all is not at ease. In a period of rapid industrialization and widespread changes in society, anxiety is evident.
The slightly threatening shadowy forms in the background of Edgar Degas’ The Star hints at these uncertainties.
Indeed, the entire left-hand side of the canvas (painted with violent, frenzied brushstrokes) encroaches on the dancer’s serene beauty. This was the reality of Paris at the time, with the forces of modernity engulfing traditional ways of life.
Often controlled by male patrons, a ballerina’s life was far from glamorous. The foreboding black figures hint that whilst her life is brilliant on stage, it’s a much darker place off-stage.
The composition itself (with the woman’s arms creating a strong diagonal) further creates a dynamic effect. This energetic suspense adds to the beautiful movement of the ballerina’s dance.
Discover more about Degas oil paintings and the life of this famous artist.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar de Gas, more generally known as Edgar Degas, was an Impressionist Movement painter born in France in 1834. Degas was a versatile artist working in many mediums, including oil paintings, pastels, drawings and sculpture.
Degas never married but he had a close friendship with American Impressionist art Mary Cassatt which spanned many years and it is thought he contributed to her painting Little Girl in a Blue Armchair 1878.
Degas studied at the famous Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris but did not complete his studies and for 5 years he explored the Renaissance Movement artists in Italy where he studied Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
Degas returned to Paris in 1859 and began painting portraits of family and the upper echelons of French Society, often reworking his paintings several times.
Degas Bellelli Family Portrait features his Aunt Laura and her husband with their two daughters.
Degas enlisted in the National Guard upon the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. It was there he discovered an eyesight problem which continued to trouble him throughout his life.
Post-war, Degas stayed with his brother in New Orleans in Lousianna, where his famous painting the Cotton Exchange in New Orleans 1873 was completed.
Upon his return to Paris later that year, Degas sold his assets in order to rescue his brother from financial debt. This meant that Degas was now reliant on the sale of his own art to provide a living.
Degas joined the Impressionist Movement, working with Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Renoir and female impressionist artists Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. However, Degas was a conservative figure and the scandal which the Impressionist Exhibitions attracted left him isolated from the group.
Degas is known for his ballerina paintings which comprise around 50% of his output.
Famous Degas ballet paintings include The Dance Class 1874 which reveals an imagined scene in the rehearsal room of the Paris Opera with the renowned ballet teacher Jules Perrot leading the class. This painting was part of the Impressionist Exhibition 1876 and is now held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Degas' ballerina painting, The Star, Prima Ballerina, aka L'Etoile, was painted in 1878 some four years later, and depicts a single ballerina as seen from the balcony. This painting forms part of the Musee d'Orsay, Paris collection.
Two Ballet Dancers 1879 is held by the Shelburne Museum in Vermont as a gift from the Electra Havemeyer Webb Fund.
Blue Dancers 1899 is held by the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. This painting is a favorite Degas reproduction which stands out for its harmony of color and four ballerinas' mid-movement.
The Dance Studio c1878 features a solitary ballerina and is a particular favorite Degas ballerina artwork.
Degas' horse paintings started during the mid-1860. Degas horse racing paintings display a depth of anatomical knowledge and generally depict scenes before the race has started.
During later life Edgar Degas famous paintings of nudes include bathers in various and sometimes awkward poses. Degas' impressionist nude paintings attracted both praise and criticism but by this time it was generally acknowledged that Degas had little respect for the female sex, having once referred to the ballerinas in his painting as "little monkey girls". When asked by a woman "Why make women look ugly", Degas reportedly replied "Because, Madame, in general women are ugly".
Although Degas worked furiously in his later years his failing eyesight restricted his output. He died in Paris in 1917 of a brain hemorrhage.
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