Russian Dancers, c. 1899
Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917
Pastel on tracing paper mounted on cardboard
Sheet: 24 1/2 × 24 3/4 in. (62.2 × 62.9 cm) Frame: 2 7/16 × 32 1/2 × 33 1/4 in. (6.2 × 82.6 × 84.5 cm)
John A. and Audrey Jones Beck Collection, gift of Audrey Jones Beck
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
Practicing Art Vocabulary
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking
- Elements of Art
- Build the students’ vocabulary
Connecting to the Work of Art
While artist Edgar Degas is known for his depictions of ballet dancers, his lesser known images of folk dancers portray an energy and tone of celebration that is not seen in his other works. Russian Dancers is a pastel drawing, one of the fifteen works he created of Eastern European folk dancers. The figures of three young women appear to be in the midst of performing a traditional dance. They are dressed in costumes imitating the clothes of traditional Russian villagers, which includes white blouses, colorful and embroidered skirts, and red boots. They also are depicted wearing floral crowns and necklaces. Degas captures the fast paced movements of the dancer by blurring the figures’ facial features. Their limbs and clothing are more defined though, outlined by a thin dark line. The use of a dark line is an unusual element in an Impressionist work since artist associated with the movement preferred to use light and shadow to convey shapes as opposed to outlining. The hazy yellow sky adds the impression that this dance is occurring around sunset. The bright reds, purples, blues, and greens of the dancer’s skirts pop against the shadowy, greyish-green hills of the background. By keeping the background design simple and the color mostly monotone, Degas emphasizes the dancers as the focus of the work. Notice how the artist also added the same colors in the skirts to the hill in the background. This effectively ties the dancers and their surroundings into one harmonious composition.
The bright skirts themselves create a lot of contrast in the work of art by emphasizing the movement and rhythmic energy that leads the viewer’s eye from figure to figure. The purple skirt pops against the blue which pops against the green, layering on the excitement of the dance. None of the dancers stand straight up or are in stiff poses. They are holding their hands up to their heads with elbows out to the side with their knees raised to try and touch their elbows. To achieve these poses, Degas depicts the dancers on diagonal lines across the composition that contrast with the horizontal lines of the background, creating a more lively and dynamic image. Not only are the figures drawn on diagonals, but they also appear to be slightly off balance as a means to illustrate the energetic pace of the dance and its ever-changing movements.
Degas crafted Russian Dancers similarly to how he approached his famous works of art of ballet dancers. He not only attended performances from various troupes, but would also ask the dancers to come to his studio so he could sketch them in great detail. He used tracing paper for each sketch so he could later layer the different poses together to form a final composition. From there, he would use pastels to create the vivid colors of the finished work of art. Degas called his pastel works “orgies of color” for their liveliness and brightness of the pastels as opposed to oil paints.
Interestingly, Degas never visited Russia in his lifetime. An obsession with Eastern European culture had swept through Paris after France and Russia signed a treaty in the 1890s to protect each other from the triple alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. The cultural obsession led to many Russian folk dance troupes visiting Paris around the turn of the century. Degas watched these folk dancers in their performances at cabarets and clubs around Paris. As a result, the countryside he uses for the backgrounds for his folk dancers are not real, but from his imagination.
While Degas depicted the dancers and ballerinas in similar manners, in reality, folk dance depicted is a far cry from ballet. Where ballerinas were trained for years to perform on stage in ornate costumes with elaborate sets, traditional folk dancers tended to be people of the working classes who danced for ritual purposes or their own entertainment. Folk dance practices originated as early as 3000 BCE as a part of ritual worship and often incorporated musical instruments, singing, and spoken word. When Christian missionaries swept through Russia during the Middle Ages, they saw how ingrained the dances were in the culture and incorporated Christian themes into them instead of trying to remove them. By the 18th century, folk dances were beginning to move from a traditional part of culture to a performance art. By the time Degas was watching them at the turn of the 20th century, they were just performances that represented an idealized version of agrarian life in Russia.
Although Degas did not consider himself an Impressionist because he did not use most of their painting techniques or exact styles, he still exhibited with them and focused on similar subjects as them, people and events of everyday life as opposed to the aristocracy.
Describe the figures and the setting. What words would you use to describe the action in this work of art?
Notice the figures. Describe how they are posed. What are some similarities between the figures? Differences?
Where are the figures? What clues does the artist include in the background to help you figure out where they are depicted?
How does the artist use color to create rhythm and contrast? For example, describe the contrast of the costumes against the background.
Look closely at sketchy quality of this composition. The medium of this work is pastels, a soft, crayon-like substance. How does this add to the sense of movement in this work? Notice the lines in the grass in the foreground and in the figure’s skirts.
Notice the black outlines on the figures. How do these define the picture? How would the picture be different without them?
How do the active poses of the dancers contribute to the energy and liveliness of the scene?
How does the artist focus viewers on the movements of the dance rather than the dancers themselves? Notice how the faces of the figures are blurred.
Degas kept a good record of who the ballerinas in his paintings were, but did not record the names of the Russian dancers. Does this change how you view the dancers? How does this show the artist’s focus on movement?
Notice how tight this composition is, focusing on just the three dancers. How might the tone of the composition change if the artist captured more of the scene?
Notice how the dancer’s bodies are positioned on diagonal lines across the composition. How does this placement affect how you view this work? What do the diagonal lines do for the composition?
Degas never visited Russia, but became obsessed with the cultures of Eastern Europe. Consider how cultural organizations, such as performing arts, can influence the viewpoints of society.
- This artwork will be used as a bell-ringer or warm-up that forces students to use elements vocabulary. The essential question will be: “Which element of art is most prominent in this work?”
- Give them a list of the elements of art and the principles of design, and ask them to describe how the different elements are found in the work.
- For further discussion, hold a conversation about the analysis of the work of art. Ask students to use their observations about the elements of art and principles of design to justify their interpretations of the meaning of the works of art.
Subject Matter Connection
Use this work of art to start conversations in a language arts classroom about how color can be used to help establish tone. How does the color choice contribute to the energy and liveliness of the scenes? Discuss what kinds of feelings students associate with certain colors and also how our previous associations with color can help interpret or hinder our interpretations of a work of art. Compare using color to record tone in a painting to using descriptive words to convey mood in a work of ﬁction. In a studio art classroom, ask students to use color to decipher patterns and to decode rhythm, and discuss how color can help set the tone and rhythm.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.