The Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer's Opera Robert Le Diable
- Place of origin:
Paris, France (painted)
Degas, Hilaire-Germain Edgar, born 1834 - died 1917 (artist)
- Materials and Techniques:
oil on canvas
- Credit Line:
Bequeathed by Constantine Alexander Ionides
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Paintings, room 81, case West Wall
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was born in Paris where he entered the studio of Louis Lamothe (1822-1869), a former pupil of Ingres, in 1854, before attending the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He completed his artistic training with a three-year journey in Italy and specialised in contemporary subjects upon his return to France. His work is characterised by a wide range of media (drawings, prints, pastels, paintings and sculptures) and shares many components with the Realist and Impressionist movement even though he remained quite independent. At the end of his life he was regarded as a major artistic figure.
This painting is a fine example of Degas' opera scenes. It depicts the final act of the Romantic opera Robert le Diable when deceased nuns come back to life and execute some bacchanal dance. The scene is depicted from behind the orchestra and the first rows of spectators among whom can be recognised some friends of the artist. This compositional idea is quite typical of Degas and is recurring in several stage representations. Although Degas was close to some Impressionist painters, he rather defined his work as realist.
In the background, spectral figures dancing on a large stage decorated with a series of arched windows opening onto a cloister; in the foreground, the orchestra stalls and first rows of spectators.
Place of Origin
Paris, France (painted)
Degas, Hilaire-Germain Edgar, born 1834 - died 1917 (artist)
Materials and Techniques
oil on canvas
Marks and inscriptions
Height: 76.6 cm estimate, Width: 81.3 cm estimate, Height: 121 cm framed, Width: 115 cm framed, Depth: 15 cm framed
Object history note
1876, Jean-Baptiste Faure; 28 February 1881, Durand-Ruel (95, New Bond Street, London); from whom purchased by Constantine Alexander Ionides (possibly advised by Legros), 7 June 1881; listed in his inventory of November 1881 (private collection) with a valuation of £400; bequeathed by Constantine Alexander Ionides in 1900.
Historical significance: This painting depicts a ballet scene from Giacomo Meyerbeer's (1791-1864) opera, Robert le Diable, a spectacular Romantic opera based on a chivalric romance which premiered on 21 November 1831. This semi-historical opera had a considerable success and was still performed 40 years later when Degas devised this composition. His first, rather smaller and more vertical version of this painting (66 x 54.3 cm), dated 1871, belonged to Mrs H.O. Havemeyer, who bequeathed it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (29.100.552) in 1921.
The painting depicts one of the final scenes when a company of deceased nuns come back to life and try to tempt the main protagonist, Robert. However the artist here focuses more on the accompanying musicians in the ground-floor box and the first rows of the audience rather than on the scene itself. The relatively stiff attitute of the figures in the foreground contrasts with and therefore enhances the sense of movement of the dancing nuns.
Among the figures in the foreground, one can recognise the collector Albert Hecht, on the far left holding his opera glasses, next to the bassoonist Désiré Dihau, who appears in the exact same position in another painting (California palace of the Legion of Honor-1952.69). The bearded figure seen from behind towards the right is the amateur painter Vicomte Lepic.
Degas executed several preparatory drawings for this subject, four of which are in the V&A (see E.3685-1919, E.3686-1919, E.3687-1919, E.3687-1919, E.3688-1919), Degas' himself confessed: 'My art has nothing spontaneous about it, it is all reflection'. His preference for urban subjects, artificial light and use of preparatory drawings distinguishes his work from most other Impressionist painters.
Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942), who specialised in scenes from London music halls, probably knew this painting, which on its bequest to the V&A in 1900 became the first painting by Degas to enter a public collection in Britain.
Historical context note
19th-century French art is marked by a succession of movements based on a more or less close relationship with nature. At the beginning of the century, Romantic artists were fascinated by nature they interpreted as a mirror of the mind. They investigated human nature and personality, the folk culture, the national and ethnic origins, the medieval era, the exotic, the remote, the mysterious and the occult. This movement was heralded in France by such painter as Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). In its opposition to academic art and its demand for a modern style Realism continued the aims of the Romantics. They assumed that reality could be perceived without distortion or idealization, and sought after a mean to combine the perception of the individual with objectivity. This reaction in French painting against the Grand Manner is well represented by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) who wrote a 'Manifesto of Realism', entitled Le Réalisme published in Paris in 1855. These ideas were challenged by the group of the Barbizon painters, who formed a recognizable school from the early 1830s to the 1870s and developed a free, broad and rough technique. They were mainly concerned by landscape painting and the rendering of light. The works of Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña (1807-1876), Jules Dupré (1811-1889), Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867), Constant Troyon (1810-1865) and Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) anticipate somehow the plein-air landscapes of the Impressionists. This new interest also extended to genre painting and urban modern life.
Oil painting, 'The Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer's Opera "Robert Le Diable"', Edgar Degas, 1876
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Robins, Anna Gruetzner and Richard Thomson Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910 London: Tate Publishing, 2005, pp.62-64, fig. 23.
C.J.H, 'The Constantine Ionides Bequest, Article II - Ingres, Delacroix, Daumier and Degas', The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 5, no. 18 (Sept. 1904), pp. 530.
'This fine sequence of figure pictures is continued by the admirable early work of Degas, well-known, at least by reproduction, to all careful students of modern painting. Though the colour is more sober than that which we have come to regard as characteristic of the painter's maturity, the work contains in embryo the qualities which we admire in the more brilliant work of Degas's later years - the striking unconventionality of design, the directness of expression, and the unfailing grip of character and reality in the drawing, which make a great art out of material which in other hands may be fit only for the poster of a café chantant. The quality and vividness of the heads in the foreground recall Goya almost as much as does the weird lighting of the dancers behind them, but the actual craftmanship has in it elements of firmness to which Goya attained but rarely. Goya was content to be a brilliant improvisateur. Degas seems to improvise, and yet works all the time with a consumate science that makes one think of Terborch's dainty sureness in using white and black as a foil for the human face. In England, where the later developments of French art still appeal only to a limited audience, it is fortunate that Degas should be represented thus, because here it is still the custom to talk as if the so-called Impressionists were at least imperfectly trained if not also imperfectly gifted. This single picture is enough to show that, in the case of one important master at least, such an idea is an utter mistake. It has also the advantage of being a starting point from which further additions to our national collections can easily be made, so that they may some day be brought up to date without any serious lack of sequence.'
Kauffmann, C.M., Catalogue of Foreign Paintings, II. 1800-1900, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973, pp. 24-25, cat. no. 58.
The following is the full text of the entry:
Hilaire Germain Edgar DEGAS (1834-1917)
Born in Paris, the son of a wealthy banker, he first studied law at his father's wish. In 1855 he took up painting and went to classes at the École des Beaux-Arts. He went to Italy in 1856-57 and on his return painted history subjects. The influence of Ingres dominated his student years but from about 1865 this was replaced by that of Manet, whose friend he had become. In the war of 1870-71 he was in the artillery and a year later he visited the U.S.A. He exhibited at seven of the eight Impressionist Exhibitions held between 1874 and 1886, but open-air landscape painting never played a predominant role in his work as it did in that of the Impressionists. In the second half of his career he concentrated on painting ballet dancers in pastel and oil.
THE BALLET SCENE FROM MEYERBEER'S OPERA 'ROBERT LE DIABLE'
Signed lower left Degas
29 ¾ x 32 (76.6 x 81.3)
Meyerbeer's opera, which was first performed in Paris in November 1831, contains a scene dominated by the phantoms of nuns who in life had been unfaithful to their vows. They were conjured from their tombs by a mysterious character called Bertram, who intended to use them to bring about the ruin of his son Robert. Degas devoted some two-thirds of the composition to showing the shadowy forms of the nuns on the stage; the foreground contains the orchestra and the front three rows of the stalls, effectively forming a group portrait of some of Degas' friends. Albert Hecht, the collector, appears on the extreme left holding his opera glasses; next but one to the right, in full profile, is Désiré Dihau, the bassoonist in the orchestra; the bearded figure seen from behind towards the right is the amateur painter Vicomte Lepic (for other portraits of these friends of the artist see J. S. Boggs, Portraits by Degas, University of California Press, 1962).
An earlier version, upright in format and with the stage taking up only about half of the composition, which was painted for Albert Hecht, is in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (H. O. Havemeyer Collection, 26 x 21 3/8 in., Lemoisne, ii, 1946, no. 294). It is dated 1872 and therefore predates by four years the Museum's version, which was completed in 1876 for the baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure (Letters, 1947). The relationship of the two versions to each other and to similar compositions by Degas of this period is fully discussed by Jonathan Mayne (1966).
There are five brush drawings of nuns - presumably sketches for the 1872 version - in the Museum (E.3685/88-1919: three repr. by Browse, 1949, pls. 6-7; four by Mayne, 1966, figs. 4-7), and another drawing in a notebook in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (T. Reff, Burl. Mag., cvii, 1965, p. 614).
CAI.19, painted in 1876, was bought by Ionides in 1881 (the formerly prevalent view that it was bought by him in 1872 was based on a confusion with the New York version). It is, therefore, one of the earliest paintings by Degas to have been acquired by an English collector, though in this respect Ionides was preceded by Henry Hill and Louis Huth in the 1870S (Pickvance, 1963). It was, however, the first painting by Degas to enter an English museum: a work by him was not found acceptable by the N. G., even as a gift, as late as 1905 (Cooper, 1954, p. 67).
There is a copy of this painting by the American artist Everett Shinn entitled La Favorita (Apollo, lxxvii, 1963, p. 62, fig. 9).
Prov. 1876, Jean-Baptiste Faure; 28 Feb. 1881, Durand-Ruel; 7 June 1881, Constantine Alexander Ionides (see Pickvance, 1963); bequeathed to the Museum in 1900.
Lit. Degas letters, ed. M. Guerin, 1947, p. 45; Monkhouse, 1884, p. 126 f. repr. p. 121; Anon., 'The Constantine Ionides Collection' in Art Journal, 1904, p. 286, repr.; Sir C. Holmes in Burl. Mag., v, 1904, p. 530, pl. iii; P. A. Lemoisne, Degas, 1912, pl. 13; L. Hourticq, 'E. Degas' in Art et Decoration, xxxii, 1912, p. 99, repr.; P. Jamot, Degas, 1924, p. 138, pl. 25; Long, Cat. Ionides Coll., 1925, p. 19. pl. 11; J. B. Manson, The life and work of E. Degas, 1927, p. 19, pl. 4; G. Bazin, 'Degas et l'objectif' in L'Amour de l'Art, xii, 1931, p. 306, fig. 101; P. A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, ii, 1946, p. 210, no. 391; L. Browse, Degas dancers, 1949, p. 338, pl. 9; D. Cooper, The Courtauld Collection, 1954, p. 67; R. Pickvance, 'Degas Dancers 1872-6' in Burl. Mag., cv, 1963, p. 266; J. Mayne, 'Degas's ballet scene from 'Robert le Diable' in Victoria & Albert Museum Bulletin, ii, 1966, pp. 148-56 (separately issued 1969.)
R. Pickvance, 'Degas's Dancers: 1872-6', The Burlington Magazine, no. 718 vol. CV June 1963 p. 266, note 86.
100 Great Paintings in The Victoria & Albert Museum, London: V&A, 1985, p.176.
The following is the full text of the entry:
"Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas, 1834-1917
THE BALLET SCENE FROM MEYERBEER'S OPERA 'ROBERT LE
Signed lower left Degas
Oil on canvas, 76.6 x 81.3 cm
CAI.I9. Ionides Bequest.
Degas was fascinated by the stage, and by dancers, because of the unusual lighting effects, and the exaggerated movements of the performers. In a notebook of 1869 he wrote: 'Work hard on effects of evening, lamps, candles, etc. The intriguing thing is not to show the source, but the effect of light.' This scene is an excellent example of his experiments since it combines three separate light sources: the footlights, the gaslight in the flies to simulate moonlight, and the desk lights in the orchestra pit.
Several aspects of the composition are strikingly novel for its date: The low angle, as if we are part of the audience, and the contrast of monumental style with a casual 'snap-shot' view. (In fact, the seemingly arbitrary cropping and the sense of spontaneity owe little to photography, which was still academic rather than informal at this date, but are thought to be derived rather from the asymmetry of the Japanese print). This format, of a stage viewed from orchestra pit or stalls, juxtaposing a dark and massive foreground with a hazy brilliant backdrop, occurs several times in Degas' oeuvre. For instance, there is another (upright) version of this scene, painted in 1872, in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.
Meyerbeer's opera was first performed in 1831 and continued to enjoy popular success until the end of the century. The plot reflected a taste for macabre fantasy and 'Gothic' romance. In this scene the phantoms of nuns, who had been unfaithful to their vows in life, are conjured from the grave to entice the hero Robert to ruin and damnation. There are five drawings in the Museum, executed in the fluid oil-medium invented by Degas and known as 'peinture à l'essence', of dancing nuns, which relate, though not directly, to this and to the earlier composition.
The picture also includes an informal group portrait. In the foreground, which encompasses the orchestra pit and three rows of stalls, are three identifiable figures, friends of Degas. On the extreme left, looking out through his opera glasses, is Albert Hecht, the collector who purchased the 1872 version of the painting; next but one to the right, seen in full profile, is Désiré Dihau, the bassoonist in the orchestra; the bearded figure seen from behind towards the right is Vicomte Lepic, an amateur painter.
In 1881 the picture was bought by the collector Constantine Alexander Ionides. It was included in his bequest to the V&A in 1900, and was thus the first painting by Degas to enter an English museum.
Guy Cogeval et Beatrice Avanzi (eds), De la Scene au Tableau: David, Fussli, Klimt, Moreau, Lautrec, Degas, Vuillard..., Paris, 2009, pp. 255-256.
M. Guerin ed., Degas letters,, 1947, p. 45
C. Monkhouse, ‘The Constantine Ionides Collection’ in Magazine of Art, vii, 1884, p. 126 f. repr. p. 121.
'The Constantine Ionides Collection' in Art Journal, 1904, p. 286, repr.
Sir C. Holmes in The Burlington Magazine, v, 1904, p. 530, pl. iii.
P. A. Lemoisne, Degas, Paris, 1912, pl. 13.
L. Hourticq, 'E. Degas' in Art et Decoration, xxxii, 1912, p. 99, repr.
P. Jamot, Degas, 1924, p. 138, pl. 25.
B.S. Long, Catalogue of the Constantine Alexander Ionides collection. Vol. 1, Paintings in oil, tempera and water-colour, together with certain of the drawings, London, 1925, p. 19. pl. 11.
J. B. Manson, The life and work of E. Degas, 1927, p. 19, pl. 4.
G. Bazin, 'Degas et l'objectif' in L'Amour de l'Art, xii, 1931, p. 306, fig. 101
P. A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, ii, 1946, p. 210, no. 391.
L. Browse, Degas dancers, 1949, p. 338, pl. 9.
D. Cooper, The Courtauld Collection, 1954, p. 67.
R. Pickvance, 'Degas Dancers 1872-6' in The Burlington Magazine cv, 1963, p. 266.
J. Mayne, 'Degas's ballet scene from 'Robert le Diable' in Victoria & Albert Museum Bulletin, ii, 1966, pp. 148-56.
Separately issued 1969.
J. De Vonyard and R. Kendall, Degas and the Dance, New York, 2002, pp. 52-61, fig. 58.
D. Sutton, Edgar Degas. Life and Work, New York, 1986, pp.161-165, fig. 139.
F. Russoli and F. Minervino, L'opera completa di Degas, Milan, 1970, p. 109 cat. 487, pl. XL.
Jane Pritchard, ed. Diaghilev and the golden age of the Ballet Russes, 1909-1929 London: V&A Publishing, 2010. ISBN: 9781851776139.
Richard Kendall and Jill Devonyar, Degas and the Ballet. Picturing Movement London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2011. ISBN:978-1-905711-69-7.
Hopper Paris : Réunion des musées nationaux--Grand Palais ; New York : D.A.P., 2012. ISBN: 9782711859597.
Edward Hopper 1882 - 1967 (Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais 5 Oct 2012-28 Jan 2013)
Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement (Royal Academy of Arts 17/09/2011-11/12/2011)
Degas and the Dance (Philadelphia 01/01/2002-11/05/2003)
Degas and the Dance (The Detroit Institute of Arts 20/10/2002-12/01/2003)
Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909- 1929 (Victoria and Albert Museum 09/01/2010-25/09/2010)
Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris 1870-1910. (Tate 05/10/2005-15/01/2006)
Canvas; Oil paint
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