France 1834 – 1917
Dancers climbing the stairs
[Danseuses montant un escalier] 1886-90
oil on canvas
canvas 39.0 (h) x 89.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Count Isaac de Camondo 1911
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Almost half of Degas’ paintings were devoted to the ballet. However, like many of his canvases, this one does not actually depict a performance on stage. It was the behind-the-scenes subject matter, in this instance a dance class, which truly delighted Degas.
Degas created Dancers climbing the stairs in the horizontal format which he adopted for his frieze-like compositions of dancers, horseracing and hunting scenes. The artist began adopting this shape in painting and in drawing from the late 1870s and continued to use it for over twenty years, exploring its multiple variations and permutations.1
Here Degas has composed a narrow, shallow corridor which leads the viewer’s eye from the left to the right of the composition and up into the open classroom beyond. A central dancer, dressed in a white tutu, steps up the stairs towards a classroom full of dancers practising their technique. A characteristic ploy used by the artist is the cropping of figures to add a sense of movement and vivacity to his dancers. In this work Degas has applied this strategy in a thoroughly radical manner. One young dancer is shown with her back to the viewer and, wearing a pink sash around her waist, is barely half a torso. She turns as if to speak to another dancer who is but a head and a raised hand. This suggests a sense of immediacy, as if the viewer has just walked in on the scene—one which is really of Degas’ imagination rather than drawn from life.
The dancers in the far background are silhouetted against the windows of the rehearsal room—a technique called contre jour, another favourite device employed by Degas. Within the confines of the background space, Degas has carefully arranged a cluster of ballerinas in a sequence of favourite poses. The space is a vast expanse of empty walls and empty floors, while the strong diagonal line of the larger figures in the foreground emphasises movement. Despite all of these various elements, Degas has achieved a beautifully balanced composition. Unlike some of his early ballet pictures, which are full of the bustle of a busy rehearsal room, the figures in Dancers climbing the stairs possess a certain other-worldliness.
This work was sold on 20 August 1888 to the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, providing us with the date by which the work was completed.2 Stylistically, however, it could have been painted a year or two earlier.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- For example, The dance lesson c. 1879 and Before the ballet 1890–92, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
- Journal and stock book from Durand-Ruel archives, in Gary Tinterow, ‘Chronology III’, in Jean Sutherland Boggs, Douglas W. Druick, Henri Loyrette et al., Degas, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada 1988, p. 389.