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Degas and the Dance

February 12–May 11, 2003

Edgar Degas and the ballet are virtually synonymous. Dancers—shown in every phase of their complex and demanding art form—make up more than fifty percent of his abundant output.

A season ticket holder from his late teens, Degas haunted the corridors of the ballet school as well as the rehearsal halls and the stage itself. His insights into this closed, artificial, and finally enchanting world of female beauty and art reveals every aspect of the ballet, not just the accomplished public performance which, surprisingly, has a rather small role in his overall production.

Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall, major historians of the dance and of Degas, have brought to this very familiar, if huge, subject a new perspective of remarkably fresh insight. Through over 140 works in a variety of media the show explores Degas’s investigation over some forty years of the dance world that was central to the culture of Paris in his day. The exhibition traces Degas’s involvement beginning with his quite realistic depictions of actual performances in the 1860s and ’70s, to his more discursive and intimate scrutiny of the behind-the-scenes world of rehearsals and lessons, which preoccupied him in the 1880s. In his final productive years, Degas’s grandly beautiful repetitions of ballet themes merge subject and color into an expressive whole.

New research, particularly into the history of the dance and its social context during the third republic in nineteenth-century France, has established information about the individual dancers whom Degas befriended and the actual productions he saw or watched take form. From this research emerges a new understanding of the meaning that the ballet held for Degas. Tension and release, ambition and routine, discipline and genius, poise and movement: these are the essential ingredients that shape the art of this disconcertingly correct and poignant artist.

  • The Detroit Institute of Arts: October 20, 2002–January 12, 2003
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art: February 12–May 11, 2003

Main Building


The exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Made possible by ATOFINA and The PNC Financial Services Group.

Additional support is provided by the Delaware River Port Authority, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Annenberg Foundation, and the Aetna Foundation, and by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Promotional support is provided by NBC 10 WCAU and Amtrak.


Joseph Rishel, Gisela and Dennis Alter Senior Curator of European Painting, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Richard Kendall, Independent Curator; Jill DeVonyar, Associate Curator, Reader's Digest Association

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