NavigationThe Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera, 'Robert le Diable

Lesson #2

Edgar Degas (duh-GAH)
French, 1834-1917
The Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera, "Robert le Diable," 1876

Oil on canvas,
30 1/8 x 32 in.
© The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England

Subject

Unlike most Impressionists, Degas never worked from nature. "Art is not a sport," wrote this cool, cynical intellectual, the very image of the Paris dandy. Instead, he roamed behind the scenes of such popular city haunts as the opera, ballet, and racetrack. In this scene from the then-popular Robert Le Diable (Robert the Devil) opera, the spirits of dead nuns who have broken their vows dance wildly in a ghostly moonlit cloister, hoping to lure the hero Robert to damnation. Painting from an audience member’s viewpoint, Degas is more interested in what is going on at the edge of the theater’s orchestra pit than on the stage. Several musicians and audience members are painted as portraits of Degas’ opera-loving friends. Viewing this painting, we can almost reach out and touch the slicked-down hair of the man in the right foreground, as he and the gentlemen near him look in every direction except toward the stage.

What or who is the bearded man with the opera glasses (far left) eyeing? The painting’s focus is a far cry from the moralizing themes of French Academy art. Perhaps Degas was making fun of this heavy, melodramatic opera, with its ties to a traditional, Romantic past that the Impressionists wanted to escape.

Style

The daring composition (like a photograph taken by someone in the audience) shows how photography influenced the Impres- sionists. As they gaze toward the painting’s edges, Degas’ subjects seem to say that life goes on outside this painting.

The artist often made quick, location sketches with "essence" - oil paint thinned with turpentine - and then painted a finished work in his studio. Like other Impressionists, Degas was fascinated with light, but he preferred artificial light to the en plein air kind. Notice how this painting’s three light sources create different moods: the bright lamps lighting the musicians’ scores, the eerie cast of footlights on the performers and the moonlight created by gas lights over the stage. "The fascinating thing," Degas said, "is not to show the source of light, but the effect of light."

Artist

To Degas, a painting was "something which requires as much knavery, trickery, and deceit as the perpetration of a crime."

In his studio, Degas loved to experiment with composition and light, but unlike most Impressionists, he often painted from memory or imagination. He also worked in a variety of materials, in- cluding pastel, pastel-paint combinations, and sculpture. When a financial crisis forced him to sell his work in the mid-1870s, he turned to monotype prints (made by applying colored or black paint to a metal plate) which could be turned out quickly. However, he continued to paint until his eyesight grew too weak at the end of his life.

Looking Questions

  • Where does this scene take place?
  • Where are you, the viewer, located in relation to the scene in the painting?
  • What musical instruments do you see?
  • There are two horizontal lines in this painting. Where are they?
  • Where are the lights coming from?
  • What are the people on the stage doing?
  • Where is the man in the lower left-hand corner looking?
  • What colors do you see in the painting?
  • What shapes are repeated in this painting?

 Activities

The Arts

Discover how different kinds of lights affect colors and shadows of objects. Set up a still life for your students. Put a clear glass, a piece of cloth, and a tall, shiny object such as a colorful plastic cup on a large, white piece of paper. Use candlelight and a flashlight covered with tinted Mylar to add color, electric light, and sunlight. Record what happens to the colors, shadows, and shapes of the objects as the light changes. Create drawings from these experiments.

Math or Science

Ask your students to look at this transparency next to the other Degas reproduction in this packet, Before the Performance.

During the late 1800s, French mathematicians formalized some of Augutin Cauchy’s and Evarist Galois’s ideas into what we call algebra - math in which letters are used to represent basic number relationships. Some of these letters are constants, values that do not change. Some letters in algebra are variables, values that change and are different. Have the students look for things that these two reproductions have in common (the constants) and how they are different (the variables). Then make a list of each category. Which is the longer list?

Language Arts

This painting captures the experience of attending an opera, one of the artist’s favorite forms of entertainment. Ask your students to write a review of a specific work from their own favorite form of entertainment. It may be a movie, play, computer game, or television show.

Social Studies

The painting features three different types of people. The actors are on the stage. The musicians are in the orchestra pit. The audience members are sitting in the front rows. Divide the class into teams of about five students each. The small groups will work together to develop their own script or story line for a music video. It must relate to the painting. It could be about the audience, stagehand, usher, musicians, and/or the activity on stage. Each team will develop a short story line or script describing their proposed video. What kind of music is being played? Are the actors dancing or posed standing still? Is the audience enjoying the performance? Try to make the video include some historically accurate details.

Continue reading on to the next page, #3: Caillebotte, Le Pont de l'Europe.

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