The History of Ballet through Art

Two Ballet Dancers by Edgar Degas (c.1879)

Everyone knows the paintings of ballet dancers by Edgar Degas (1834 –1917), in fact half of all his output involved dancers as his subject – in paintings, drawings and sculpture.  What few realise is that he was also chronicling the decline of the ballet in France where it had become little more than a ‘leg-show’  –  a sad state of affairs considering that the ‘dancing king’, Louis XIV, founded  the first professional ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet, in 1669.

Since antiquity, artists have been fascinated by the human body and dancers represent the ultimate refinement of the human body in motion, so it is no surprise that dance and dancers should prove such an attractive subject for visual artists.

Art has also relied heavily on patronage, seen as a status symbol by kings, queens and nobility who filled their palaces with art.  Similarly in the story of ballet and dance, it was soon used as a tool to promote status and power.  Therefore it is no surprise that the most famous dancers were immortalised by painters. 

The presentation will follow this story from the Italian Renaissance through to the present day, looking at how ballet and dance have been represented by painters such as Lancret, Gainsborough, Degas, Bakst, Laura Knight and Chagall, and sculptors such as Rodin and, in the modern age, Enzo Piazzotti and Tom Merrifield;  and from the 19th Century, dance and dancers provided artists in the new medium of photography with a rich source of subject matter – names such as Cecil Beaton, Baron, Martha Swope, Anthony Crickmay and many others.

Presentation: this presentation is illustrated by PowerPoint slides, along with archive film clips and DVDs shown to illustrate the topic.

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