Edgar Degas is famous for depictions of ballet dancers. However, his earliest rendition of the subject in L’Orchestre de l’Opéra (Figure 1) is ignored for its ballerinas, who are beheaded by the pictorial frame. Despite the prevalence of dancers in his catalogue afterwards, scholarly discussion mostly focuses on L’Orchestre’s primary subject, bassoonist Désiré Dihau, and his peers, making it an innovative portrait which conveys modern life with formalist techniques. Most prior discussion contends these dancers were not beheaded for content, but for a formalist exercise in dramatic cropping. Recent discourse relegates the ballerinas to the background as erotic objects. However, these discussions fail to consider the painting within the socio-economic and political context which gave ballerinas their status. By including context, I argue that L’Orchestre’s dancers were decapitated by Degas in a final stage of decision making precisely because of their debased socio-economic class, incited by the Paris Opera’s exploitation.

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Amanda Strasik, Ph.D.

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