The Degas masterpiece, Dancers at the Barre“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” - Edgar Degas

French Impressionist painter Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas was a lifelong fan of the art form ballet, devoting his life and innumerable oil paintings to capturing the dances, their moves and the music he so adored. For more than 40 years he studied the dancers, onstage, backstage and offstage, becoming a visual stenographer of their every muscle flex and ease. His oeuvre also spilled over from the canvas: the dancers were everywhere, in his pastels, drawings and sculptures, ultimately leading Degas scholars to catalogue more than 1500 pieces of artworks dedicated to what the artist considered the finest of human expression. This sentiment of an undying worship of the dance is the focal point for an exhibition until January 8 in Washington D.C. known as Degas’s Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint, the first to grace the American capital in a quarter of a century.

The exhibition draws its name from what experts consider one of Degas’s best works illustrating dancers: the piece, completed sometime between 1880-1900 (yes, a 20 year gap, we know), is known as the Dancers at the Barre, one of the finest works in The Phillips Collection, which is sponsoring and putting on the event. The painting one sees now, however, is vastly different from just four years ago. In 2007, Phillips’ head of conservation Elizabeth Steele started on a restoration process aimed at arresting the canvas’s disappearing varnish, stopping the flaking paint, and cleaning off years of built up dirt which not only distorted the visual appearance, but threatened the stability of the overall painting with its added weight. Steele was careful not to actually change the oil painting, but rather respected and revived the initial colours of white, bright blue and black against the sun-hot orange background.

In her restoration work Steele discovered some interesting clues Degas left behind. An inscription on the canvas hinted that the painting was started about 1884, while, through almost CSI-like circumstances she found that Degas had in fact drastically reduced the size of the canvas once he started painting, repositioned the arms and legs of the dancers and even painting a neck with his thumb. Analysing the pigments Steele managed to chronologically sort these changes, showing that Degas actually worked on the painting over and over again in a time span of 20 years, slowly intensifying his color palette while repainting the figures. This process was to be expected: he famously said there was nothing spontaneous about his work, and everything he did was the result of careful study and revision. It is here that the accompanying sketches and drawings are particularly powerful: it shows Degas repeatedly tracing and redrawing compositions of dancers over decades, often from slight changes in perspectives.

This reality distorting process worked a charm on many Degas viewers. For example, museum founder Duncan Phillips said Dancers at the Barre was “a masterpiece . . . in its daring record of instantaneous change at a split second of observation,” in which Degas “miraculously transformed the incident of swiftly seen shapes in time into a thrilling vision of dynamic forms in space.” While yes, Degas did do that, he only managed to do it after 20 years of concentrating on one canvas, not to mention all his previous training and experience! As we first quoted Degas - “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” In this fantastic range of artworks on show, including Dancers at the Barre and the other 30 related paintings, works on paper, and bronzes, the Degas oeuvre combines to show what a meticulous painter Degas truly was.