Dancers in the Rehearsal Room with a Double Bass – formal analysis

Edgar Degas’s Dancers in the Rehearsal Room with a Double Bass (ca. 1882–85 oil on canvas). Havemeyer Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In this image, Degas has used strongly contrasted the white tutu against the dark brown wood panel of the wall. This glimpse, through Degas’s eyes, of a ballet rehersal – a world that is usually only available to view in its final perfected state, with a ticket, is intriguing and real. The painting tells a story and one needs to study the several areas of activity to determine where one is in relation to the ballerinas. The viewer is placed in the unusual vantage point of what seems like a hallway. We see a double bass in the lower left hand corner; a ballerina seated gracefully bending to adjust her slipper; a dancer with her back to us looking down at her feet; a dancer at the bar with her arm and leg outstretched, pointing toward the remaining cluster of dancers (some with fans) who are in front of three French windows.

The number of hues employed in this work is small, consisting of burnt umber and various shades of brown, contrasted with the high value of white and small volumes of highly saturated red, blue and yellow.  The overall tone of the painting is warm but this is contrasted with the white and cool blues in the tutus. The painting is a study in light and shade. The shadows can be seen in the folds of the tutus, the shadows of the figures, and on the skin of the dancers. The relationships of the colours are made more complex and varied by modification of the hues in light and dark, that is, in value and in saturation. The subtly modulated colours increase in value when the sunlight hits them: the tutus, bows, pink in the slippers, red tinted hair (central figure) and on the rusty-colored double bass. Overall however, the tones of the painting are low in saturation. The dullness is exacerbated by the fact it is situated in quite a small, dark gallery only illuminated with a sky-light.

Degas has used black paint to outline the most important figures and forms, including the dancers limbs, the outline of some of the dresses and bows, and the double bass. Degas has used an impasto of thick but finely applied, pure white impasto brushstrokes to create actual texture for the main tutu, realistically showing sun sparkling on the delicate material. The composition shows a remarkable and clever use of spatial structure; the viewer is able to view four different centers of activity within quite a small space. The cluster of dancers are actually not far at all from the second largest figure; they are only recognized as being far away because their size/outlines are much smaller.

The opaque look of the surface means that Degas may have used a glaze after the painting was finished to bring out the intensity of the light. However, as Degas was above all dedicated to pastels and chalky, matte finishes, I conclude that this glaze was applied as a conservation treatment. This is highly possible considering it has toured with many exhibitions and its provenance shows multiple sales. There is lots of thinly applied paint color, sometimes one hue on top of another, and this two-tone effect, applied in a criss crossed motion, helps to create texture and depth. Up close the weaved canvas texture is visible. In raking light, it appears in pristine condition except for a bubble the size of a quarter located towards the top, almost in the centre of the painting.

The large planes of the wall have visible brush strokes, which move in the same direction as the line of the wall. Ecru, green and a buff cream colour are all blended together in sometimes messy, sweeping upward strokes along the top of the main wall. A wood-grain effect is achieved on the lower part of the wall with the seemingly casual strokes dark chocolate brown and auburn where the light reaches down the hallway. Visible upward brushstrokes following the diagonal wall line are visible, and combined with the flat-lying double bass, create a rhythmical movement as the planes of colour speed back, sharply receding into the dance studio. Brushstrokes of several different umber shades cover the floor, and very low saturated turquoise are blended to show the shadows cast by the dancers. The floor is a distinct plane, painted in dappled manner, with an amazing radiating light effect that mimics the circular shape of the tutus in that it wraps around the bottom right hand corner of the painting and joins the hallway to the main studio. This sweeping effect moves our attention between the cluster of dancers and the main dancer, and this implied line is important in defining the spatial relationship between forms in the painting.

The proportion of total volume devoted to the mass of brown wall is at first strange and imbalanced, but its purpose is to add to the expressive content of the painting. The dominant wall adds to the sense we really are peering at an unpolished scene through an unpolished hallway, which has the feeling of a narrowing binocular lense or tunnel.  The form of the double bass also adds to the expressive content, even though it is presently lying down and not being plucked at, its presence makes it is easy for the viewer to mentally conjure up the full symphony that will accompany the ballerinas in their final piece onstage.

Despite the asymmetric layout of forms within the composition, the painting still seems to have an overall harmony, as the high value floor space on the right balances the dark wall on the left. The contrast between the diagonal lines and the round lines of the tutus, the back of the dress of the central figure (and her graceful bow), and the curvy double bass also help to achieve a balance in the shapes and forms throughout the composition. The theme of dance and music add to the harmonious feeling of the painting, and are embodied in many different elements including the way the light shimmers on the floor, the escalating diagonal lines, and the unexpected dotted placement of color – that is very natural and real, like patches of flowers popping up randomly in an open field.
My very quick sketch of the painting

There are several compositional strategies carried within this painting, including use of diagonal lines, which, once you’ve studied the main dancer, help to carry your eye towards the brighter (higher value) hues in the studio. The diagonal lines are repeated in the fingerboard/strings of the double bass, the line of the wall, and the line formed by the outstretched leg and arm of the third-largest ballerina. Even the small placement of highly saturated colour follow a steep diagonal line from the red hair tie of the first ballerina, up to the blue shawl and red bow of the second, onto the fans of gold and red held by the smaller dancers. The faint lines of the wooden floor are also diagonally leading up to the back studio, but come from a different direction: starting from the right hand corner and radiating inwards. These radiating lines also help to convey the sunlight streaming in through the three French windows.

Rectangle shapes are another compositional motif – the overall canvas shape, the two rectangles formed by the two-tone wall; the French windows are ‘longway’ rectangles and their lines match vertical line of the end of the hallway, left of centre. The painting’s movement and dance theme do move and enliven the spirit, transporting you into the scene just as Berenson’s concept of ‘ideated satisfaction’ suggests. We can hear the music and sympathise with the amount of practice required of the dancers and the effort required in preparation for a performance. Berenson’s term ‘tactile values’ is not, in my opinion, as easily applied, due possibly to the vantage point of the viewer. You feel as though the dancers are in their own private world, and so you don’t want to reach out and touch them. However, I do have the feeling that I could reach into the painting and pick up the ballerinas as though they were dolls and imagine what movements they practiced next, just as you imagine in your head what type of music might be playing.

Degas’s use of light and shade in this painting also correlate directly to the energy levels of the dancers. The main figure, shown in the shadows is languid and the cluster of energetic activity is shown in the light. As with the sounds of a classical symphony, the movement between the soft and dramatic is captured in this painting.

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