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Edgar Degas, The Curtain, c. 1880, pastel over charcoal and monotype on laid paper mounted on board, sheet: 29 x 33.3 cm (11 7/16 x 13 1/8 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

WASHINGTON, DC.- Edgar Degas (1834–1917) is celebrated as the premier painter of dancers, a subject that dominated his art for nearly four decades. Degas's renowned images of the Paris Opéra are among the most sophisticated and visually compelling works he created. Celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Paris Opéra's founding, Degas at the Opéra will present approximately 100 of the artist's best-known and beloved paintings, pastels, drawings, prints, and sculpture. The exhibition will be on view from March 1 through July 5, 2020, accompanied by a fully illustrated exhibition catalog.

A music lover and regular visitor to performances, Degas explored both the public spaces of the Paris Opéra—auditorium, stage, and boxes—as well as more private ones, including dance studios and backstage. He was friends with many of the people he depicted in his paintings, from dancers, singers, and orchestra musicians to the formally dressed subscribers. The Opéra also fueled some of Degas's most daring technical innovations, including his first monotype, The Ballet Master (Le maître de ballet) (c. 1876, National Gallery of Art), and his wax sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1878–1881, National Gallery of Art), which revolutionized the medium.

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Edgar Degas, executed in collaboration with Vicomte LepicThe Ballet Master (Le maître de ballet), c. 1876, monotype (black ink) heightened and corrected with white chalk or wash on laid paper, plate: 56.5 x 70 cm (22 1/4 x 27 9/16 in.), sheet: 62 x 85 cm (24 7/16 x 33 7/16 in.), framed: 83.2 x 95.9 x 6.6 cm (32 3/4 x 37 3/4 x 2 1/2 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection, 1964, 1964.8.1782

The Gallery has hosted several exhibitions on Degas over the years, including Wax Sculptures by Degas (1965–1973); Degas: The Dancers (1984–1985); Degas at the Races (1998); Degas/Cassatt (2014); and Degas's Little Dancer (2014–2015).

"Although there have been many exhibitions celebrating Degas's love of the ballet, this will be the first to celebrate his enduring fascination with the opera. The Gallery has the world's third largest collection of works by Degas, from which several of his key works depictions of the Paris Opéra will be on view in the show," said Kaywin Feldman, director, National Gallery of Art. "We are grateful to our partner organizations, the Musée d'Orsay and the Musée de l'Orangerie, other lending institutions and private collections, as well as BP America, Adrienne Arsht, and The Exhibition Circle at the Gallery for their support of this remarkable exhibition."

"BP respects the power of the arts to inspire better societies. As we help humanity advance by providing heat, light, and mobility, we’re also proud to support the arts for the creativity and passion they provide," said Mary Streett, senior vice president, U.S. Communications & External Affairs, BP America. "That’s why we’re honored to help bring the works of Edgar Degas to the National Gallery of Art. Degas is particularly special, as a European master who drew inspiration from America. We know museum visitors will do the same in this stunning exhibit."

Degas at the Opéra is the first exhibition to examine the importance of the Paris Opéra to the artist's work. The exhibition addresses the Opéra as an institution and Degas's passionate attachment to it through his personal relationships with successive Opéra directors, composers, corps de ballet, singers, musicians, conductors, and subscribers. From the mid-1860s through his later work made after 1900, the Opéra was the focal point for the artist. He explored its different spaces (orchestra, stage, boxes, foyer, corridors, dance studios), and examined the people active in those spaces. Degas's depiction of the dancer's body from every angle, under strain or in moments of relaxed waiting, reveals the psychological truth of the moment and is remarkable for its modernity in representing the human figure.

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Edgar Degas, Madame Camus, 1869/1870. Oil on canvas, overall: 72.7 x 92.1 cm (28 5/8 x 36 1/4 in.) framed: 97.1 x 117.1 cm (38 1/4 x 46 1/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection.

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Edgar Degas, Mademoiselle Malot, c. 1877, oil on canvas, overall: 81.1 x 65.1 cm (31 15/16 x 25 5/8 in.), framed: 106 x 90.8 cm (41 3/4 x 35 3/4 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.18.

Degas used multiple viewpoints to frame a scene in unexpected ways. Through the contrasts of lighting, the juxtaposition of the darkened orchestra pit and the brightly lit stage, the study of movement, and the spontaneous gestures that masked patient study and constant practice, the Opéra became a laboratory that allowed him to explore the constant interplay of form and substance.

Rejecting the idea of painting from nature, Degas presented an Opéra filtered by memory and enriched by his imagination. He invents the scenes of orchestras, views of the auditorium, the stage and behind the scenes, dance classes, and examinations in the studio. Each scene and subject called for its own medium: paint for the slow precision of the dance classes; pastel for the dazzling colored ballets; black-and-white monotypes for the amorous liaisons behind the scenes; and drawing for the dancers' fleeting poses or movements.

Arranged thematically in eight galleries, Degas at the Opéra opens with his most famous works inspired by the Opéra: Mlle Fiocre a propos of the Ballet "La Source," (c. 1867–1868, Brooklyn Museum) and The Ballet from "Robert le Diable" (1871, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Although they depict specific operatic performances, these paintings speak directly to Degas's profound attachment to and engagement with the Opéra as well as his distinctive approach to its presentation.

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Edgar Degas, Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the Ballet "La Source" (Portrait de Mlle...E[ugénie] F[iocre]: à propos du ballet "La Source"), ca. 1867-1868, oil on canvas, 130 x 145 cm, Brooklyn Museum.

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Edgar Degas, The Ballet from "Robert le Diable", 1871, 0il on canvas, overall: 66 x 54.3 cm (26 x 21 3/8 in.), framed: 87 x 77.2 x 8.9 cm (34 1/4 x 30 3/8 x 3 1/2 in.). Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929, (29.100.552).

Degas also depicted his circle of friends, the performers, musicians, and others who were associated with the Opéra, including the portraits of soprano Rose Caron and cellist Louis-Marie Pilet, in addition to drawings of writer and librettist Ludovic Halévy. Among the highlights of Degas's musical circle is his portrayal of bassoonist Désiré Dihau that appears in his extraordinary and unconventional painting, The Orchestra of the Opera (c. 1870, Musée d'Orsay), as well as in Musicians in the Orchestra (Portrait of Désiré Dihau) (c. 1870, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). 

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Edgar Degas, The Orchestra of the Opéra, 1870, oil on canvas, overall: 56.6 x 46 cm (22 5/16 x 18 1/8 in.), framed: 78 x 69 cm (30 11/16 x 27 3/16 in.), Musée d'Orsay, Paris, RF 2417. Copyright RMN-Grand Palais / photo: Hervé Lewandowski / Art Resource, NY.

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Edgar Degas, Musicians in the Orchestra (Portrait of Désiré Dihau), c. 1870, oil on canvas, 48.9 x 59.7 cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection, 1952.69. 

The exhibition continues with works that illustrate Degas's interest in representing performers in candid moments in rehearsal rooms, offering rare glimpses into the backstage life and the rigorous training of the dancers. Several of the works on view are set in the practice rooms of the Opéra house on the rue Le Peletier—destroyed by fire in 1873—including The Dance Class (1873, Musée d'Orsay) and The Dance Class (c. 1873, National Gallery of Art).

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Edgar Degas, The Ballet Class, between 1871 and 1874, oil on canvas, overall: 85.5 x 75 cm (33 11/16 x 29 1/2 in.), framed: 109.5 x 99.3 cm (43 1/8 x 39 1/8 in.), Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Bequest of Isaac de Camondo, 1911, RF 1976Copyright RMN-Grand Palais / photo: Hervé Lewandowski / Art Resource, NY.

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Edgar Degas, The Dance Class (Le Foyer de la danse à l'Opéra de la rue Le Peletier), 1872, oil on canvas, overall: 32.7 x 46.3 cm (12 7/8 x 18 1/4 in.), framed: 51.7 x 65.5 cm (20 3/8 x 25 13/16 in.), Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Bequest of Isaac de Camondo, 1911, RF 1977. Copyright RMN-Grand Palais / Photo: Tony Querrec / Art Resource, NY.

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Edgar Degas, The Dance Class (La classe de danse), begun 1873, completed 1875–1876, oil on canvas, overall: 85.5 x 75 cm (33 11/16 x 29 1/2 in.), framed: 109.5 x 99.3 cm (43 1/8 x 39 1/8 in.), Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Bequest of Isaac de Camondo, 1911, RF 1976. Copyright RMN-Grand Palais / Photo: Adrien Didierjean / Art Resource, NY

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Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, c. 1873, oil on canvas, overall: 47.63 × 62.23 cm (18 3/4 × 24 1/2 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection)

While Degas showed little interest in documenting actual performances, he was intrigued by the public spaces of the Opera. He produced works that incorporate unconventional viewpoints into and out of the backstage wings, looking down at the stage from the opera boxes, or up from in the orchestra pit. Among the works on view that show such dynamic representations are Yellow Dancers (In the Wings) (1847/1876, The Art Institute of Chicago), The Curtain (c. 1880, National Gallery of Art), and Dancer with a Bouquet Curtseying on Stage (1878, Musée d'Orsay).

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Edgar Degas, Yellow Dancers (In the Wings), 1847-1876, oil on canvas, 73.5 × 59.5 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Palmer, Mrs. Bertha P. Thorne, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur M. Wood, and Mrs. Rose M. Palmer

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Edgar Degas, The Curtain, c. 1880, pastel over charcoal and monotype on laid paper mounted on board, sheet: 29 x 33.3 cm (11 7/16 x 13 1/8 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

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Edgar Degas, Dancer with a Bouquet Curtseying on Stage (Une danseuse tenant un bouquet de la main gauche), 1878, pastel on wove paper mounted on canvas, overall: 72 x 77.5 cm (28 3/8 x 30 1/2 in.), framed: 98.6 x 103 x 10 cm (38 13/16 x 40 9/16 x 3 15/16 in.), Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Bequest of Isaac de Camondo, 1911, RF 4039. Copyright RMN-Grand Palais / photo: Hervé Lewandowski / Art Resource, NY.

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Edgar Degas, The Ballet Rehearsal on Stage, 1874, oil on canvas, overall: 65 x 81.5 cm (25 9/16 x 32 1/16 in.), framed: 89.5 x 105.5 cm (35 1/4 x 41 9/16 in.), Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Bequest of Isaac de Camondo, 1911. Copyright RMN-Grand Palais / Photo: Patrice Schmidt. / Art Resource, NY

The Paris Opéra not only supplied a variety of subject matter for Degas to explore, but it also fueled his passion for experimenting with materials and format. Degas created decorative fans beginning in the late 1860s, using the semicircular format to explore compositional space in increasingly complex ways. Eight of these fans are on view, including Dancers (1879, Tacoma Art Museum), Ballet (c. 1880, Musée d'Orsay), and La Farandole (c. 1870, private collection). He took these experiments even further in a series of panoramic frieze paintings begun in the late 1870s. Among the six frieze paintings featured in this exhibition are Dancers in the Rehearsal Room with a Double Bass (c. 1882–1885, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), Dancers in the Green Room (c. 1879, Detroit Institute of Arts), and Dancers in the Classroom (c. 1880, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute).

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Edgar Degas, Spanish Dancers and Musicians, c. 1869, watercolor and pen and black ink on wove paper, overall (arched): 51.4 x 26 cm (20 1/4 x 10 1/4 in.), framed: 43.8 x 58.9 x 3.2 cm (17 1/4 x 23 3/16 x 1 1/4 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Woodner Collection, 2000, 2000.25.3.

 

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Edgar Degas, Danseuses (Dancers), 1879. Gouache, oil pastel, and oil paint on silk, 8 ½ x 23 ⅞ inches. Tacoma Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. W. Hilding Lindberg, 1983.1.8. Photo © Tacoma Art Museum, photo by Richard Nicol.

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Edgar Degas, Dancers in the Rehearsal Room with a Double Bass, c. 1882–1885, oil on canvas, 39.1 x 89.5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929. 

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Edgar Degas, Dancers in the Green Room, c. 1879, oil on canvas, 40.6 × 87.6 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts. 

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Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, c. 1879, oil on canvas, overall: 38 x 88 cm (14 15/16 x 34 5/8 inches), framed: 59.7 x 108.3 x 5.1 cm (23 ½ x 42 5/8 x 2inches), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

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Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, c. 1880, oil on canvas, overall: 39.4 x 88.4 cm (15 1/2 x 34 13/16 in.), framed: 60 x 109.2 x 6 cm (23 5/8 x 43 x 2 3/8 in.),Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, Acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1924, 1955.562.

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Edgar Degas, Before the Ballet, 1890 /1892, oil on canvas, overall: 40 x 88.9 cm (15 34 x 35 inches), framed: 59.7 x 109.8 x 8.2 cm (23 ½ x 43 ¼ x 3 ¼ inches), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Widener Collection.

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Edgar Degas, Dancers Backstage, 1876/1883, oil on canvas, overall: 24.2 x 18.8 cm (9 1/2 x 7 3/8 in.), framed: 43.8 x 38.1 x 6.3 cm (17 1/4 x 15 x 2 1/2 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

The body of the dancer captured both in motion and at rest was a source of fascination and inspiration for Degas. Several drawings on view will show that while many served as studies for other works, it was the process of creation itself that motivated him. Some highlights on view are Three Nude Dancers (c. 1903, Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection) and Three Dancers (1900–1905, private collection) that depict dancers in motion, while other works, such as Dancer, Half-Length, Arms Crossed Behind her Head (c. 1890, Statens Museum fur Kunst) and Study of a Dancer (1874, private collection), show dancers in a specific pose.

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Edgar Degas, On Stage I, 1876, soft-ground etching and drypoint on wove paper, sheet: 16 x 24.5 cm (6 5/16 x 9 5/8 inches); plate: 12 x 16.2 cm (4 ¾ x 6 3/6 inches), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Rosenwald Collection.

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Edgar Degas, Dancer Seen from Behind and Three Studies of Feet, c. 1878, black chalk and pastel on blue-gray laid paper, overall: 45.6 x 59.8 cm (17 15/16 x 23 9/16 in.), framed: 72.1 x 92.4 x 5.7 cm (28 3/8 x 36 3/8 x 2 1/4 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Myron A. Hofer in memory of his mother, Mrs. Charles Hofer.

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Edgar Degas, Two Dancers, c. 1880, charcoal and pastel on green paper, framed: 67.7 x 83.2 x 3.2 cm (26 5/8 x 32 3/4 x 1 1/4 in.), overall: 48 x 63.5 cm (18 7/8 x 25 in.), David Lachenmann Collection.

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Edgar Degas, Dance Examination, 1880, pastel on paper, overall: 62.2 x 46.5 cm (24 1/2 x 18 5/16 in.), framed: 81.9 x 66.6 cm (32 1/4 x 26 1/4 in.). Lent by the Denver Art Museum, 1941.6.

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Edgar Degas, Study of a Theater Box, 1880, pastel and oil on board laid down on canvas, overall: 66 x 53 cm (26 x 20 7/8 in.), framed: 87.6 x 76.2 x 12.7 cm (34 1/2 x 30 x 5 in.), The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Lewis Collection, 377-2014.

Degas provided rare insights into the life of performers behind the scenes, especially that of the ballet "rat," as young dance students were known, and investigates both the humor and the seriousness of the difficult and demanding life of the ballet dancer. A bound volume of etchings, La Famille Cardinal (1938/1939, National Gallery of Art), as well as a series of monotypes, both of which are based on La Famille Cardinal, a study of lower-class Parisian life during the early years of the French government's Third Republic (1870–1940), written by Halévy. Degas's most famous work on the theme of the dancer in training, the wax sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1878–1881, National Gallery of Art), will be installed, alongside a bound volume of pencil sketches depicting ballet dancers (c. 1877, The J. Paul Getty Museum).

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Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878–1881, pigmented beeswax, clay, metal armature, rope, paintbrushes, human hair, silk and linen ribbon, cotton faille bodice, cotton and silk tutu, linen slippers, on wooden base, overall without base: 98.9 x 34.7 x 35.2 cm (38 15/16 x 13 11/16 x 13 7/8 in), weight: 49 lb. (22.226 kg), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

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Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Ballet Dancers, 1877, pastel and gouache over monotype, overall: 29.7 x 26.9 cm (11 11/16 x 10 9/16 inches), framed: 46.6 x 43.5 x 6.3 cm (18 3/8 x 17 1//8 x 2 ½ inches), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Alisa Mellon Bruce Collection. 

Even as his eyesight failed later in life, Degas continued to draw inspiration from the Opéra. The exhibition concludes with his late works, many of them in pastel, in which Degas abandoned the precision of his early works. Later works such as Blue Dancers (c. 1890, Musée d'Orsay), Dancer with Bouquets (1895–1900, Chrysler Museum of Art), and Ballet Scene (c. 1907, National Gallery of Art) show the vibrant colors and bold silhouettes that he favored.

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Edgar Degas, Four Dancers, c. 1899, oil on canvas, overall: 151.1 x 180.2 cm (59 ½ x 70 15/16 inches), framed: 176.9 x 207.7 cm (69 5/8 x 81 ¾ inches), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Chester Dale Collection.

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Edgar Degas, Ballet Scene, c. 1907, pastel on greenish transparent tracing paper, overall: 76.8 x 111.2 cm (30 1/4 x 43 3/4 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

March 1 – July 5, 2020