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Degas, The Dance Class

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, oil on canvas, 1874 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker, Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: We're on the second floor of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we're looking at a painting by Degas, "The Dance Class." And this is a painting that was, according to the wall text, originally intended for the very first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, but not actually shown until two years later. SPEAKER 2: Actually, when you said that, thinking about that very first Impressionist exhibition, the first moment when this group of artists decided, you know, we're not going to show at the Salon. We're going to create our own exhibition space. And how incredibly normal that seems to us today. SPEAKER 1: But it was radical. SPEAKER 2: Completely radical to not show in the official exhibition. SPEAKER 1: Now, didn't they actually borrow the photographer's studio-- Nadar-- on the Boulevard des Capucines? SPEAKER 2: They did. But there was a real concern that not enough people would come to see it, they wouldn't become known, they wouldn't become famous, no one would buy their work, how would they eat? Because if they showed their work at the official exhibition at the Salon-- SPEAKER 1: Everybody went. SPEAKER 2: Right. SPEAKER 1: But I think we know who the Impressionists are. SPEAKER 2: Yes, we do. SPEAKER 1: So they were fairly successful. SPEAKER 2: They did the right thing in the end. SPEAKER 1: There were some really hilarious-- and some positive reviews and some really scathingly sarcastic reviews-- SPEAKER 2: Yes. SPEAKER 1: --of that first Impressionist exhibition. SPEAKER 2: Well, this a pretty outrageous painting, really. SPEAKER 1: It does't look so outrageous to us now, does it? SPEAKER 2: No, it looks beautiful to us. SPEAKER 1: It looks like a snapshot. SPEAKER 2: This woman in the center whose body comes out of the two heads of these other two standing women-- SPEAKER 1: We have faces obscured. SPEAKER 2: And she seems to have her fingers in her mouth. SPEAKER 1: What's interesting is that despite the fact that we assume right off that the ballerinas are beautiful and graceful, many of the ballerinas-- in fact, if not all of them-- with the exception of the one who's performing, are really rendered in a very ungainly way. SPEAKER 2: Actually, she looks even pretty-- SPEAKER 1: Ungainly herself. SPEAKER 2: Ungainly to me, yeah-- her gestures. SPEAKER 1: And actually, you can see what's happening. This is a little narrative here. You have the dancers waiting their turn. SPEAKER 2: Waiting, right. SPEAKER 1: You have the dance master, the male with the staff. SPEAKER 2: Right. SPEAKER 1: And then, you have the one dancer who's moving across the floor, and then, the young women who are finished. SPEAKER 2: Right. And the mirror, of course, that they're practicing in front of that gives us a sense of the window that must be outside of the painting on the right side, through which-- SPEAKER 1: It's illuminating. They see the city through it. And this is really all about this new, urban world, this culture of pleasure. SPEAKER 2: The city, of [INAUDIBLE] of performance and leisure. These women who are in the back, just sort of hanging out, and sitting around with their hands on their hips. SPEAKER 1: Well, those might actually be the escorts, right? SPEAKER 2: That's the older ones, not in tutus, are their mothers. SPEAKER 1: Yes, that's right. SPEAKER 2: And the ballerinas were the sort of little bit kind of like the movie stars of today. Right? They were-- SPEAKER 1: Even with a little of that risque-- SPEAKER 2: Sought after. SPEAKER 1: And that little bit of that risque element involved. The notion of the ungainliness is so clear when you look for it. Look at the dancer who's in the very foreground, just in back of the music stand. It looks as if she's hiking her tutu up. SPEAKER 2: And someone behind her, the woman behind her, somehow fixing something about her tutu by her hips. SPEAKER 1: You're right. And the other one has her fingers in her mouth. She's biting her nails. SPEAKER 2: And we can't see the bottom of her body at all. She just-- SPEAKER 1: She grows out. SPEAKER 2: Her torso seems to grow out of these three heads of these three figures in the front. Another figure on the left sort of looks out at something outside of the-- This is not a self-contained, clear narrative, which is exactly what would have been presented at the Salon. SPEAKER 1: It completely breaks all the compositional rules that history-- SPEAKER 2: And narrative rules. Right? SPEAKER 1: That's right. But there must have been something intensely modern about this notion of an image that seemed so momentary and so unchoreographed. SPEAKER 2: Right. But of course, we know that it was graphed by Degas. SPEAKER 1: And of course it's-- SPEAKER 2: And carefully planned, and mapped, and structured-- SPEAKER 1: A perfect metaphor for the subject. Right? SPEAKER 2: Right. The way that the perspective of the room is exaggerated, this very asymmetrical thing that Degas does very often, where the whole bottom right corner is empty. SPEAKER 1: And look at what that does. You have this incredible velocity of the perspective, especially in terms of the ceiling line. But then-- you're right-- the bottom right is completely empty. And it's almost doing a kind of east Asian or Japanese kind of-- SPEAKER 2: Asymmetry. SPEAKER 1: Not only asymmetry, but also creating a kind of flat plane-- SPEAKER 2: Right, absolutely. SPEAKER 1: --for us. And in a sense very much at odds with the velocity of this tension that develops between the two-dimensionality of the bottom right and the hyper three-dimensionality of the upper left. SPEAKER 2: That's right. SPEAKER 1: Of course, there's this other issue. We are here viewing something that is very intimate and very spontaneous. We, as the viewer, are much different from that-- SPEAKER 2: That people wouldn't be allowed to see. SPEAKER 1: Or do we have the privilege to view, then, of the dance master. What's so interesting is that we're really about at his eye level, aren't we? And in a sense, we are another sort of view. We have that-- SPEAKER 2: Insiders. It's like having backstage tickets. SPEAKER 1: Except that they don't notice us. SPEAKER 2: No, they don't notice us at all. [MUSIC PLAYING]