This paper examines the aspects of two great works of art and where they fit neatly into the history of art. It is apparent that these two works have similar subject matters: dancing. However, the time periods and styles differ greatly. "The Dance Lesson," circa 1879, by Edgar Degas is a painting done in France with the medium of oil on canvas. As is the case with most of Degas’ works, "Lesson" was done during the Impressionist movement. Historically, many revolutions -- from the Industrial to French Revolution -- were in the process of occurring or beginning, when the painting -- realistic in style -- was produced. In America, the Civil War and Reconstruction had ended. Italy had imprisoned their Pope Pius IX and christened Rome as their new capital. The phonograph, light, and telephone had been recently created. The German-Franco War in France was ending. In comparison and contrast, "The Dancing Couple," painted during the mid-17th century by Jan Steen is an oil on canvas work. Completed in the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands, Steen incorporated historical aspects such as the change in religious attitudes around the world into the painting. At the time, Sir Isaac Newton was writing about his theories on gravity. America was seeking independence from England, and England had abolished their monarchy rule and established the House of Lords to rule. During that period, people began turning away from the church, and Steen’s body of work became a visual and social commentary on these changes in morality and religion.
As stated, both paintings have similar subject matters, but that subject is examined from different perspectives in each work. In "Lesson," Degas presents a sober scene in a dance studio of a ballet lesson. To the far left in the painting sits a lone ballerina who seems to be in deep thought. Her presence sets the tone for the entire painting. The impression the viewer gets is that ballet is a discipline, to be approached with much contemplation and seriousness. In contrast, in "Couple," Steen’s expressions of elation and joy is evident. The list of characters appear to be at a celebration of sorts, perhaps a wedding celebration. Wine seems to be flowing freely and lending credence to the idea that this is a festive occasion.
In their designs, both Degas and Steen utilize lines, shape and colors to create interesting works of art. In "Lesson," Degas’ use of texture appears to come from hatchmarks, but upon taking a closer look at the original painting, it is clear that Degas allows the texture from the canvas itself to surface through the paint. The canvas fiber’s appearance is like hatchmarks. The use of light and dark values on the floor imply texture. Directional lines and one-point linear perspective orthogonals show aging in the floor and put the focus on the teacher and student in the center, respectively. Contour lines in the tutus illustrate fullness. The rectangular and square shapes of the wall and photo on the wall, respectively, are also examples of directional lines pulling the eye toward the actual lesson in the middle of the painting.
The colors or hues in "Lesson," soft earth tones, portray an old studio, and pastels seem to indicate the youthfulness of the dancers. The contrast in hues are evident as the vibrant pastel leotards and tutus, in colors of pink, red, and white, are vividly more appealing than the dingy, earth tones of the walls and floor. The young girl in the far left corner claims the spotlight, as her orange leotard contrasts her tutu. The leotard, like a green stalk is plumped down into the off-white, pastel cauliflower of a tutu.
In Steen’s "Couple," movement lines emphasize the costumes and ample bellies of the couple. Directional lines show the broadness of the vined canopy, pulling the viewer’s eyes towards the heavens and the church steeple in the background. Movement lines also appear in the pants and dress of the dancers. The movement is as if the eyes are traveling to the beat of the music. The eyes actually leap from person to person and object to object in a line. The canvas is filled with places for the eyes to land, from the barrel to the hanging baskets and the people behind the wooden fence. The colors, warm earth tones, give the feeling of commoners, brown and dingy faced, likely poor. The colors, deep and true in the women’s dresses are contrasted against the dull, earth tones of browns and greys. The implied lines drawn by the positioning of the revelers to the left create a triangular shape.
Steen’s use of space differs greatly from Degas’ technique. While both "Lesson" and "Couple" appear to give the allusion of 3-dimensional space, Steen uses overlapping to create depth in his painting. Both artists use asymmetrical balance to create two fully formulated works on canvas. Steen’s painting weighs more heavily on the left, as it is filled with the bulk of the attendees at the celebration. Not only is the right side more visibly lighter, but also physically lighter. The musicians are thinned out, scaling the vined canopy and the sky above them is well-lit from the sunshine. The visual light gives the viewer the impression that the right side is physically lighter than it actually is. Steen also employs atmospheric perspective in "Couple," as is evident with the trees and steeple in the background, which become smaller as they recede. Even the people standing in a huddled mass in the background are examples of atmospheric perspective.
On the other hand, Degas uses his space to establish a mood. The ballerinas are placed sufficiently apart from each other to foster a sense of solemnity. The rhythm is sporadic placements of buoyant tutus and legs that fill the room and space adequately. Between each blank space is a mini scene within the total scene in the painting. Degas’ use of space is brilliantly done as he recreates the bouffant tutus, that fill the room from the far left to the far right and back to the center. The painting is clearly 3-dimensional, as the large dance studio, in an L shape, has an almost infinite depth that seems to go on and on to the right on the canvas. Similar to "Couple," "Lesson" has elements of atmospheric perspective also. As the ballerinas on the far right wall recede into the background, they become smaller to the viewer. The painting has tremendous depth and great fullness. In the background, the dancers on the right practice and their movement causes the eyes to move to the right, but the eyes are led back to the center and eventually to the lone dancer sitting on the floor. There is a constant flow of gentle movement and the painting, in alluding to subtle feminine attributes, shows the fragile state of ballet and young girls in the learning process.
In "Couple," Steen uses movement lines, action and meticulously placed items such as wine to create a festive mood in the painting. There is even an air of humor exhibited. It is almost as if the music and clapping can be heard by simply looking at the painting. The dancing couple and the items strewn across the floor indicate that the celebration has gotten rather ruckus, at times. It is a scene of unadulterated indulgence.
In complete contrast is Degas’ "Lesson." As stated above, the mood is somber, reflective and meditative. The dancer in orange exemplifies feelings of introspection and seems to be contemplating -- or in deep thought, while the dancers in the center are in the midst of perfecting a dance routine. Just as the discipline of ballet is undertaken as a serious art form, those stoic, grave emotions are exhibited in Degas’ painting. The work is studious and serious in nature. The pastel colors lead the viewers to believe that this is merely a work of fantasy, but Degas, in his placement of the figures, elicits more sober emotions than those found in fairy tales.
As stated previously, both paintings by Degas and Steen are works done in oil on canvas. However, this description is not to indicate that the mediums are used in similar fashions. For instance, in "Couple," Steen uses fine, hidden brushstrokes, barely visible to the viewer. He also uses a buildup of thick glazes to present the shiny look of the women’s dresses. It has been noted that some Baroque painters -- as Steen was proven to be -- employed brushes with one bristle to apply their paint. In "Lesson," Degas utilizes the entire brush with large, thick brushstrokes. He used thick imposto paint to create the textured appearance. There are areas on the canvas where he thins the paint, allowing the texture to bleed through the paint.
The style for both "Couple" and "Lesson" is realistic. Each painting is an visual enactment of a common occurrence in everyday living. The celebration in the "Couple" and the practice session during a ballet lesson in "Lesson" are all a part of life found in most advanced societies. In both paintings, the viewer could reasonably envision his or herself stepping right into the scene on the canvas.
In conclusion, I found both Degas and Steen to be dissimilar in the techniques used to portray similar topics: dancing. Degas’ painting is more art for art’s sake, while Steen’s work is more didactic and religious in nature. Not only did I enjoy viewing these two paintings, but the historical research and meaning behind the works were equally as interesting. Steen had an otherwise unhealthy obsession with religion and used every opportunity to espouse his beliefs in his art. So, while his art was vibrant and energetic, like "Couple," his motives were founded in his religious ambitions to school others about morality. Ironically, in "Couple," he appeared to be making statements against the excesses in vanity and the lack of reverence for godly pursuits. This was evident, as the revelers celebrated in the foreground, while in the background stood a lone church steeple, representing the position society placed God during the 17th century. My amusement in viewing Steen’s art came during attempts to decipher the moral statement that Steen was making in his presentations. Searching the painting for clues was half the fun of viewing it.
Degas was equally as fascinating as an artist and sculptor. His obsession with the body form aided in his exquisite projects on canvas and in wax and bronze. It is of no coincidence that Degas’ favorite topic -- ballet -- was one of my favorite pastimes as a child. His use of thick brushstrokes and heavy paint on the canvas captures the fairy tale emotions that ballet, even in reality, still evokes in the viewer. I can not help but think of when I saw Degas’ ballerinas as a child and fell in love with ballet for the first time.
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