Exploring the Shape of Knowledge with Degas’s Dancers at the Barre

2020-21 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Chloe Eastwood on Edgar Degas’s Dancers at the Barre, and exploring the relative merit of specialist and non-specialist interpretation.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Dancers at the Barre, early 1880s-c. 1900, Oil on canvas, 51 ¼ x 38 ½ in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1944

I have appreciated this series of paintings by Edgar Degas since I was a very little girl who dreamed of a glamorous life on the stage. But when I first saw it, I didn’t recognize the figures as ballet dancers. It seemed to me that their costumes were too modest, their skirts too long, their petticoats too heavy. I couldn’t have put it so concisely, but the overall effect was that they didn’t seem to me to be like the dancers I admired on the stage. This classical dance has changed so much in 150 years that it is almost unrecognizable today. The dancers’ postures were much more relaxed: in some images, tummies protrude and the dancers’ arms aren’t held as high or as precisely as modern dancers’. It’s only by the title that I eventually put the pieces together that these dancers were the ancestors of contemporary ballet.

Another important distinction is that this is not a performance. Degas captures beauty in the fleeting practice that was never intended for display. Rather than performing well-practiced perfection, the dancers are seen resting, arriving at the studio, stretching, and rehearsing. This distinction between practice and performance is further emphasized by the perspective of the painting. In so many of these pictures, the viewer is placed at the side of the studio, looking on, as if they know not to get too close to the business side of the dance. What sort of person, then, is the viewer cast as? Perhaps they are the child who snuck in after their lessons to watch the professionals practice before their performance that night. Perhaps this is where they spend every afternoon after school, drawn to the grace and power of the dancers, but feeling that they must sneak to steal glimpses? Perhaps they linger there because their older sister or cousin is a performer, needing to stay close by but unable to go any closer. The choice to capture dancers’ practice, a show without the show, is mirrored in the choice to have the audience gaze upon a barrier of space and time and canvas which separates themselves from the performers.   


While working on this post on Dancers at the Barre, I mentioned the project to a colleague, whose made a displeased noise, prompting me to ask what was so distasteful about the art or the artist. She explained that so much of the scholarly conversation was about Degas himself, even though he had only gotten access to his subjects by the exploitation of teen and preteen girl dancers, and she was tired of hearing praise for such a mediocre person. She then asked me what I found so interesting about the work. I, without much of a background in modern art, had not known this, and replied that the painting made me think about the professional evolution of classical dance and about perspective. At this point, we moved beyond the specific work of art and began to ponder the relative utility of a historiographical conversation. Does it limit what can be said about a work, or does it offer something more?  

Years ago, in a historiography class at American University, one of my fellow grad students asked, “What might happen if primary sources were given to a non-specialist to interpret?” He proposed that the non-specialist who has read no theory or prior literature on the topic wouldn’t be limited by the confines of the conversation. They would carry with them no preconceived notions of how the pieces went together or what they meant. There would be no conceptual limitations on what they might think. Yet, surely the reverse is just as true. One might also be limited by lack of expertise. It would be all too easy to retread covered ground, to miss things that would be obvious to an expert, and for each individual to have to find for themselves what was true and worth knowing from scratch. Human beings are successful not because we are brilliant on our own, but because we share knowledge. Rather than limiting what might be said, “the conversation,” as it were, is a vehicle for building on others’ knowledge in a slow, studied, and nuanced way. How can one build upon knowledge which one doesn’t understand?   

While it is essential that we contribute to and refine the work of those who have written before, all fields need fresh ideas and regular assessment as to whether we’re asking the right questions, and if not, a change in paradigm. Yet, even a change in paradigm requires deep knowledge of the conversation’s history. If historiography can be defined by a series of questions proposed and answered, then it becomes essential to know where the conversation has been if one is to avoid well-tread ground and threadbare arguments. One must have thorough knowledge of what does and doesn’t work, and the arguments which hold up to scrutiny and the ones which don’t, if one is to start a fresh conversation on the same topic. My article was based in no such research—what then, if any, was its merit? 

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