Why Degas is ‘Obese’ with Ballerinas


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Edgar Degas, a prominent French artist associated with the Impressionist movement, is renowned for his extensive body of work centered on ballet dancers. The phrase “Degas is obese with ballerinas” metaphorically reflects his profound and almost overwhelming fascination with the subject, as if his artistic appetite for capturing ballerinas was insatiable. This obsession is evident in the sheer volume and depth of his ballet-themed works, encompassing paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculptures. Exploring why Degas devoted such a significant portion of his career to depicting ballerinas reveals insights into his artistic vision, personal preferences, and the cultural context of his time.

Artistic Vision and Technique

Degas’s fascination with ballerinas can be attributed to his desire to explore movement and the human form. Ballet offered a rich subject for this exploration due to its emphasis on grace, discipline, and the dynamic range of poses and gestures. Degas was less interested in portraying the idealized beauty of ballet; instead, he sought to capture the raw, behind-the-scenes moments of practice, exhaustion, and imperfection. This focus allowed him to experiment with composition, perspective, and light, pushing the boundaries of traditional representation.

Degas’s innovative use of pastel and his skillful draftsmanship enabled him to capture the fluidity and fleeting nature of movement. His works often feature unconventional viewpoints, such as from above or behind the scenes, providing a sense of immediacy and intimacy. This approach not only highlighted the physicality of the dancers but also underscored the rigors and demands of their art form.

Personal Preferences

On a personal level, Degas was drawn to the world of ballet for its aesthetic and thematic richness. He frequented the Paris Opéra and had access to its rehearsal rooms and backstage areas, giving him ample opportunity to observe and sketch the dancers. This access allowed Degas to develop a deep understanding of their routines, struggles, and dedication. The repetitive nature of ballet practice resonated with his own meticulous working process, where he would create numerous studies and variations on a theme before finalizing a piece.

Moreover, Degas had a penchant for capturing everyday life and the working class. The ballet provided a microcosm of this, with its mix of glamour and gritty reality. By focusing on the dancers’ labor rather than their performances, Degas highlighted the contrast between the public’s perception of ballet as an elegant art form and the strenuous effort behind it.

Cultural Context

Degas’s focus on ballerinas also reflects broader cultural trends of 19th-century Paris. The city was a hub of artistic and cultural activity, with ballet being a popular form of entertainment. The Paris Opéra, in particular, was a prestigious institution that attracted both high society and artists. The ballet dancers, often referred to as “petits rats,” were an integral part of this cultural milieu, representing both the allure and the underbelly of Parisian society.

Additionally, the ballet provided a socially acceptable subject for exploring the female form. Degas’s works often reveal a voyeuristic element, where the observer is privy to private moments of vulnerability and exertion. This aspect of his work has sparked debates about the objectification of the dancers and the artist’s gaze. Nonetheless, Degas’s portrayal of ballerinas remains a testament to his ability to capture the complexity of human movement and emotion.


In summary, Edgar Degas’s ‘obesity’ with ballerinas stems from a combination of his artistic ambitions, personal interests, and the cultural landscape of his era. His extensive body of work on this theme demonstrates his relentless pursuit of capturing the essence of movement, labor, and the human condition. Through his innovative techniques and unique perspectives, Degas transformed the depiction of ballet dancers into a profound exploration of art and life.


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