Paintings by Edgar Degas are known for their intimacy. Viewers often seem to be looking in on a very private moment, observing people when they are not quite ready or prepared to be observed. Degas paintings achieve this feeling, in part, due to the poses of the figures. But the unique cropping contained in paintings by Degas may also play a role.
In the 1860s, Degas began to study and collect Japanese woodblock prints (also called ukiyo-e). While woodblock printing originated in Europe, the art form flourished in Japan. Artists used unique angles, such as viewing scenes from high above, or cropping out the ground, to give the viewer a sense of looking through a window at only part of a much larger scene. Planes were flattened with no dimensions evident, to make clear that these were images generated by people and not by mechanical methods. Colors were prominent, but the sense of line in Japanese woodblock prints plays a strong role.
It's interesting that Degas would study this sort of art form. As an Impressionist painter, Degas paintings often do not contain sharp lines and black outlines. Instead, the colors tend to flow together. Impressionist painters often depict rivers or roads receding into the middle distance of a painting, rather than using flat planes.
After studying Japanese woodblock prints, however, Degas began to incorporate the aspects into his own work. Consider Ballerinas Adjusting their Dresses. The viewer is placed slightly above the dancers, looking down upon them. Their feet are not visible in the painting, and the background is obscure and hard to identify. The painting is cropped at an extreme angle, with elbows cut off the edge of the frame. The viewer's eye is directed to the faces of the ballerinas, as Degas had intended.
Other paintings by Degas take this technique yet further. In 1874, Degas began to work with the printmaker Ludovic Lepic and created his own forms of woodblock prints. The artists would etch an image onto a plate, and then apply paint directly to the plate and stamp it onto paper. Degas would then add charcoal color over the top. No two images were exactly the same, even though they began with the same plate. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Degas flattered the Japanese printmakers quite a bit with this technique.
Study our extensive collection of Degas paintings and choose a painting to decorate your home. The use of color and image cropping in Degas paintings is bound to delight and surprise you for years to come.