Instant and Movement: Dance and Painting in the XNUMXth Century

Silhouette of a woman dancing outdoors on a lake with light painting and reflections on the water

For many centuries, painting, as a discipline, struggled to acquire its letters of nobility. It is perceived as a second-rate discipline more associated with craftsmanship than Fine Arts.

During the Renaissance, painters mobilized tirelessly so that painting was perceived as a work of the mind and could finally climb the hierarchy that classifies the arts. Other literary disciplines, however, are considered spiritual. Literature is thus highly prized for its intellectual qualities that no one questions.

In their effort to assert the noble character of their art, painters try to show how painting and literature are close, so that the nobility recognized in literature rubs off on painting. They then mobilize an ancient doctrine : Ut Pictura Poesis. The adage is stated by the Latin poet Horace in his poetic art (XNUMXst century BC). By comparing painting and poetry, he establishes the powerful idea of ​​a continuum between the pictorial and literary disciplines.

The formula, often translated as " The same is true in painting and literature. ” marks the creators for centuries of centuries. The idea of ​​a permeability of the arts with each other crosses the generations, until being exploited by reborn artists, in search of legitimacy. They therefore reactivate the Horatian adage, hoping that the glory of literature will radiate onto painting.

What we will retain here is that it is then commonly accepted that the arts dialogue with each other, brought together by their common ability to play on the expression of a sensitivity.

Recognition by all of this permeability of the arts abolishes the boundaries between practices. Even more, what is at stake here is the possibility of confront diametrically opposed arts.

As Gotthold Ephraim Lessing theorizes in Laocoon or the borders of painting and poetry (1766), the major gap between painting and literature is that the visual arts are arts of space when literature is an art. time. Painting plays with simultaneity – it gives the viewer everything to see in an instant – when literature uses diachrony by revealing itself as it goes along.

If two practices so distant from each other have been systematically brought together, then the permeability of the arts can easily go beyond the field of painting and poetry and apply to any artistic discipline. Many Fine Arts artists are interested in dance. The enthusiasm of one discipline for the other is easily explained.

In dance or painting, it is above all a question of expressing a feeling, an emotion or an idea. The major difference lies in the systems of expression of the disciplines. If figurative painting uses natural signs to directly imitate nature, dance will resort to arbitrary signs and conventions. As Nathalie Kremer and Edward Nye rightly point out,1KREMER N. and NYE E., Literature, painting and dance in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries? Study day at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University – Paris 3, May 22, 2017 this reciprocal attraction of one practice for the other raises questions of an aesthetic order, relating to the representation of emotions, but also of a generic order when the references become inter-artistic or even of a poetic order when we look at the composition.

On the generic level, for example, the boundaries between painting and dance became much thinner in the XNUMXth century. In fact, high society regularly throngs the aisles of the Opera, which it is fashionable to frequent. The artists do not escape this meeting which allows them to attend the performances, to participate in the masked balls, to find inspiration and to maintain their circles of relations.2Gabriella ASARO, “Degas and the celebration of female dance at the Opera”, History through images [online], consulted on July 28, 2021. URL: Among these artists, the painter Edgar Degas is by far the one who will be the most stubborn for this subject of representation. Between the 1860s and 1890s, he tirelessly returned to the subject of the dancer, to the point that Edouard Manet gave him the term “painter of dancers”.3MANET E., Letter to Fantin-Latour, 1868

During the first part of this period, Degas observed his models not at the Palais Garnier, which was only inaugurated in 1875, but in the theater on rue Le Peletier. He does not content himself with attending the performances but also comes to observe the lessons and meet the dancers backstage or in the foyer of the dance, for which he has negotiated his admissions.4Gabriella ASARO, Op. Cit.

It is therefore not only the splendor of the celebration on stage but their work habits, their daily lives and their moments of rest that hold his attention. He thus attends the course of the ballet master Jules Perot, from which he draws the subject of The dance class (oil on canvas, 85.5 x 75 cm, Paris, Musée d'Orsay, 1873 – 1876). He chooses the moment of relaxation for the dancers, who stretch, comb their hair or arrange their outfit after their dance class. They distractedly listen to their dancing master, the only male presence on the canvas who retains all his seriousness despite the end of the lesson, leaning with both hands on his stick. Degas is specifically interested indancers training. It freezes the image of their relaxed bodies and natural gestures.5MUSEE D'ORSAY, The dance class, Edgar Degas, work notice [online], consulted on July 27, 2021. URL:

Familiar with their life even outside the stage boards, it pays tribute to their hard work which disappears under the apparent simplicity of the movements during the shows. Degas perhaps finds himself, as an artist, in these alter egos whose hard work aims to provide the best possible final performance. The labor of the artist, whether dancer or painter, then appears as an additional junction point between the two disciplines which justifies the painter's interest in the practice of ballet. In fact, out of the hundreds of canvases that Degas donated, very few showed the glory of ballerinas. This is what he does, however, in End of arabesque (oil on canvas, 67.4 x 38 cm, Paris, Musée d'Orsay, 1876). A bouquet in her right hand, the dancer in arabesque thanks her audience, although the disorderly group in the background suggests that it could only be a rehearsal on stage.6Gabriella ASARO, Op. Cit.,

These two works attest to Degas' general attitude towards dance. Her vision covers all the episodes of the dancer's life, which she embraces in its entirety. It is in this that his painting transcribes the structuring phenomena of the practice of dance in the nineteenth century. The fact that Degas was so interested in dancers and not in dancers is for example very revealing of a more general social phenomenon. In the XNUMXth century, the men who were in vogue in the XNUMXth century, are less popular both with the public and with Opera Directors.. On stage, the young dancers essentially take on secondary roles or act as carriers for the dancers on whom the spotlights are riveted.7Gabriella ASARO, Ibid.

Apart from the boards of the Opera, the practice of dance is also evolving. It became more popular as cabarets, balls and café-concerts opened. If the capital shines in Europe, it is also for the festive character of its Parisian nights. Artists and petty bourgeois then met at the Bal Bullier, built in 1847 on Avenue de Montparnasse or later at the Red Mill, inaugurated in Montmartre in 1889.8Alexandre SUMPF, “The barrack of La Goulue and the Bullier ball”, Histoire par l’image [online], consulted on July 29, 2021. URL: We dance there the gossip, whose vogue is not unrelated to its wide distribution via posters posted in the city. The first Toulouse-Lautrec poster (170 x 130 cm, Albi, Toulouse-Lautrec Museum) was commissioned from him by the director of the Moulin-Rouge, Zidler himself.9TOULOUSE-LAUTREC MUSEUM, La Goulue, work notice [online], consulted on July 29, 2021. URL: We see there appears Louise Weber, better known by her stage name La Goulue, famous initiator of the cancan recognizable by her frilly petticoats. His reputation allows him to perform in all the high places of Parisian life, such as the Moulin de la Galette.

This other festive space in late XNUMXth century Paris was also favored by many artists, such as Steinlein, Van Gogh and Renoir. The latter transcribes the light and joyful atmosphere in his canvas a ball at the Moulin de la Galette (oil on canvas, 131 x 176 cm, Paris, Musée d'Orsay). In an impressionistic treatment, he renders with small quick, vibrant and colorful touches the festive atmosphere of the places where his friends and anonymous dancers meet. This representation of a crowd does not prevent Renoir to draw up a solid composition, structured around a long diagonal which separates foreground and background and highlights the dance space. The way in which some of the couples hug each other is reminiscent of the duo that he honors in Dance in the countryside (oil on canvas, 180 x 90 cm, Paris, Musée d'Orsay). This bringing together of the dancers, defying the good morals of the time, reveals the structuring movement of society which is now developing on the side of leisure and entertainment.

In painting, it is ultimately social facts that come through. Both Degas and Renoir therefore provide information on the practice of dance in the XNUMXth century, from the training given to the rats of the Opera by a great master like Jules Perot to the source of entertainment it represented for the bourgeois of the time, who went to the shows of Loie Fullet or La Goulue, or practiced it themselves at the Moulin de la Galette.

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