Degas, Painter of Ballerinas

Image of Degas, Painter of Ballerinas: A Picture Book
Release Date: 
April 16, 2019
Abrams Books for Young Readers
Reviewed by: 

"Degas: Painter of Ballerinas is an enchanting book that would make a perfect gift for aspiring artists and dancers."

Published by Abrams in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it's no surprise to discover that Degas, Painter of Ballerinas is a beautiful, engaging, and informative book. It's a book you might purchase for a favourite niece and then feel tempted to keep for yourself. Why not buy two copies?

The book is a visual delight, but the text makes it clear that the lives of ballerinas and the artist who painted them was one of hard work and self-discipline. We're told Degas “learned that ballet training was very much like studying art. It took hard work and hours and hours of practice.”

The ballerinas were known as petits rats, meaning little rats, because of their hard lives. Most were from poor families, and they often didn't have enough to eat. The girls gave everything they had to their art, hoping to some day earn a living as ballerinas. Understandably, the text does not detail just how hard those lives could be in Degas' time because dancers that didn't succeed often ended up destitute.

With the present-day emphasis on education being fun, the word “discipline” seems, unfortunately, to have gone out of favor. This book makes it abundantly clear how much discipline is required to excel at endeavors as demanding as ballet or painting.

But it's not all about hard work. The text is packed with charming anecdotes from Degas' life and his interactions with the little dancers. There are fascinating details, such as why a watering can appears in some of his paintings. Apparently, watering cans were used “to sprinkle water on the wood floor to lay the dust so that the ballerinas would not slip.”

Degas created unforgettable images of people captured in otherwise unremarkable moments going about their daily lives. He drew and painted ballet dancers not only performing on stage but more frequently behind the scenes, in rehearsal, practicing their steps, adjusting a shoulder strap, yawning or rubbing sore muscles.

By, for instance, depicting the exhaustion that followed a strenuous practice session Degas gave us images that showed the dancers' dedication to their art. In doing so he revealed the degree of effort that went into performances that seemed so effortless—insights that are all still relevant today.

Most of the book is taken up with amusing stories of Degas' interactions with the petits rats. The stories give us insights not only into the working life of the ballerinas but also into Degas' personality and his working methods. We learn how his failing eyesight led him to take up sculpture and abandon oil paint in favour of pastels.

Degas experimented with mixed media, most famously in his ground-breaking wax sculpture of the little dancer, which he clothed in a real ballet costume and to which he added real hair. It was the only sculpture he exhibited in his lifetime, and his unorthodox depiction of this thin, 14-year-old imp of a girl provoked extreme responses, both positive and negative.

The descriptions of Degas' work with the ballerinas is rounded out with a brief and engaging biography. We're given a glimpse of his character and family background and of the broader range of subject material that interested him. We're shown five examples of artworks in other genres, including a self-portrait made in his early twenties and a “selfie” photograph of him at age 61.

Susan Goldman Rubin is an award-winning author of many books for young people and her sure touch in writing for this audience is evident on every page. This includes the author's note, where she tells us in language any young person can relate to why she was “elated” to be asked to write this book.

At the same time, this is a work of unusual scholarship for a children's book. There are detailed notes referencing the quotations used and the illustration sources. There's a list of major art museums in seven countries where artworks by Degas may be viewed, and there's a bibliography of writings on Degas and on ballet. The inclusion of such items mean that the book will be valued by people of all ages.

The captions that accompany the illustrations are detailed and often include information on the art techniques employed. Captions such as “he composed the sketch on a diagonal” may prove a little baffling to the young reader, but help is provided with a much-needed glossary of unfamiliar art and ballet terms.

The baby pink beloved by little girls is featured extensively in the design of this book, as is pastel blue, green, and violet. Images of pastel ribbons decorate many of the pages, a reference to the ribbons used to tie on ballet slippers.  Some passages of text are in color for no apparent reason. Some are quotations, others not.

The placement on the page of two illustrations—The Dance Class and The Rehearsal of the Ballet Onstage—is unfortunate. They're both details of larger works that could have been cropped differently to avoid placing key components of the composition in the gutter between pages. Aside from this minor design quibble, it's hard to find fault with this stellar publication.

Degas: Painter of Ballerinas is an enchanting book that would make a perfect gift for aspiring artists and dancers.

Highly recommended.