Edgar Degas once said, “No art was ever less spontaneous than mine. A picture is an artificial work, outside nature. It calls for as much cunning as the commission of a crime.” Yet this painting almost seems spontaneous—Degas has captured young ballerinas of the Paris opera house at their most natural, when they are practicing unselfconsciously behind the scenes, not performing for the public. The Ballet Class is full of such paradoxes, or contradictions.
We typically think of ballerinas as glamorous and inherently graceful. Yet all five of these dancers are shown in awkward poses. In fact, one of the dancers toward the back of the painting—the one trying to balance on the toe of her shoe—is about to fall over! Another dancer, on the right side and toward the front, is looking downward as if checking the placement of her legs and feet. And in front of them all, partially blocking our view, is an ordinary woman slumped in a chair, reading the newspaper. We can’t help but wonder why the artist decided to put her there. She may be the mother of one of the girls, making sure her daughter performs well—a young ballerina’s salary could be the main income for an entire family.
When we look at this painting, we are confronted by a large, empty, diagonal space between the two groups of figures that is punctuated only by a few faint lines laid out like a grid on the floor. The floor appears to be tilted, ending in a brown band of molding, a yellow wall, and a mirror. Look carefully and you will see that the back of one of the dancers is reflected. You can also see a city scene reflected. This scene is a view through a window located beyond the right edge of the painting.
Degas himself was a common sight in the rehearsal rooms of the Paris opera house. Like other upper-class Parisians, he subscribed (bought season tickets) to the ballet and attended performances there several times a week. As a subscriber, he was allowed to wander through the rehearsal halls and mingle with the young dancers whenever he wanted. One ballerina remembered him as a man who wore blue-lensed glasses (to protect his poor eyesight) and often stopped the young dancers to draw them. Fascinated by the hard work it took to become a ballerina, Degas created far more paintings of dancers rehearsing than performing.