The Dancing Class, ca. 1870
Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917)
Oil on wood; 7 3/4 x 10 5/8 in. (19.7 x 27 cm)
Signed (lower right): Degas
H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.184)
This is the very first of Degas's innumerable scenes of ballet dancers going through their paces in the studios and rehearsal rooms of the Paris Opéra. Late in his life, when he looked again at these early pictures, Degas lamented that he no longer had the eyes for such exacting work. When he painted this small picture—for which there are many large study drawings—he did not yet have privileges to go backstage at the Opéra, then on the rue Le Peletier. In the late 1870s, Degas explained, "I have done [painted] so many of these dance examinations without having seen them that I am a little ashamed of it."
The dancer at the center of the composition is Joséphine Gaujelin (or Gozelin), whom Degas also portrayed in a stunning portrait (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston). Here, she awaits the starting note from the ballet master. The watering can (to wet down the rosin on the floor), the top hat as music holder, and the empty violin case are accessories that the artist would continue to use to enliven his ballet pictures. Similarly, the poses that Degas established here would recur in his work until the end of his life.