Degas’s Dancers in Detail

The exhibition catalogue for Degas's Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint published by The Phillips Collection

In the Degas’s Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint exhibition catalogue, Phillips Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone details Degas’s intricate process behind his late masterpiece:

“Having begun by observing the dancer from the outside, he ends his life’s work internalizing his chosen vehicle of expression to such a point that it becomes the bearer of his own physical and psychological being. In Dancers at the Barre, Degas, the old master and old man, distorts and exaggerates his subject, attenuating their limbs and twisting their bodies into an extreme expression of rigor and dedication of the discipline that made their art a perfect metaphor for his own.”

The catalogue also presents Head of Conservation Elizabeth Steele’s fascinating discoveries from the painting’s recent conservation. National Gallery of Art object conservators Shelley Sturman and Daphne Barbour discuss Degas’s sculptures, and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon reflects on Degas in the context of ballet today.

Full-color reproductions of all 30 works in the exhibition are accompanied by images of related works, notes from the technical analysis of additional works by Degas in the Phillips Collection, and a detailed chronology of the artist’s life. Read all about the impressionist master’s complex exploration of the figure and devotion to dance.

For the ballet lover on your list, a special “Degas Holiday Package” including a pair of tickets to the exhibition and one copy of the catalogue (hardcover, 148 pages) to take home is now available for a special rate of $60 ($54 for Phillips members) online and at the Phillips admissions desk.

“Not Quite There” Moments in Degas

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon talks about the pose of Degas’s Dancer Moving Forward, Arms Raised on the exhibition audio tour.


Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Dancer Moving Forward, Arms Raised, c. 1882–98 (cast c. 1919–31), Bronze, 13 3/4 x 6 7/8 x 6 in. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966.

I would say, she must be a modern dancer because it’s not an accurate balletic pose. She’s in demi derrière, her knees aren’t straight, and her arms are relaxed. But it’s very purposeful; it’s very definitely a dance move. You know her weight is over her front leg so there’s no question as to whether this is a pose of relaxation and repose or a dance move. That’s what I would say about that. But again, you know if he was sculpting a ballet dancer, what he’s done is capture the “not quite there moment”. You know this could be a movement that hasn’t yet completed, so the arms haven’t yet achieved the fifth position and the arms, the shoulders haven’t yet come down and the back knee hasn’t straightened. What we also affectionately refer to as New York Times dance photography, which is quite often we’re not there yet, so we, you open the paper and you see yourself in a not quite there position. And for a dancer, it’s just the worst thing, it’s the worst thing. So, but you know, there’s also interest in the movement, so perhaps it’s just something like I said a position that hasn’t yet fully been completed.

Christopher Wheeldon, choreographer