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The most beautiful paintings inspired by dance

From Degas to Matisse – we take a look at some of the best art capturing dance.

By Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer)

27 July 2016 at 12.17pm | 19 Comments

Painting dance is an almost impossible feat.

How do you capture movement in a brush stroke that will, inevitably, lie still? How do you hear music through a canvas? For centuries artists have felt compelled to try. Here are our favourite dance paintings of ballet and beyond:

Manet – The Spanish Ballet (1862)

Édouard Manet captured Marioano Camprubi’s Royal Spanish dance troupe before a performance at the Hippodrome in Paris. The group, which included the famous dancer Lola Melea, toured Paris during 1862.

Degas – Ballet Rehearsal (1873)

During the 1870s, Edgar Degas spent hours at the Paris Opera, chronicling rehearsals and performances and capturing intimate backstage moments – both quiet and flustered. A part of the Impressionist movement, Degas wanted to paint ‘the now’, capturing the characters of his contemporary Paris. He painted dancers true to life – strong and sweltering under layers of tulle.

Sargent – El Jaleo (1882)

American Artist John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo depicts a Spanish Gypsy dancer performing with a group of musicians and is one of his most theatrical. The enlarged shadow creates a dramatic light effect that evokes a sense of intensity at the performance.

Knight – Ballet (1936)

British artist Dame Laura Knight captures the Bolshoi Ballet in rehearsal at the Royal Opera House, the first time the company performed in London since the Russian Revolution.

In 1919, she chose the Russian prima ballerina Lydia Lopokova to sit for her, an image which became one of Knight's defiant images of strong women. Griselda Pollock, Professor of the Social & Critical Histories of Art at The University of Leeds, argues that Knight's portrayal of women presented a significant shift in the ways in which women were seen during the century, saying 'The trained and tuned body of the adult ballet dancer exerted a different kind of fascination for many artist-women seeking to represent the bodies of women in non-erotic but not asexual modes. The dancer shows a woman’s body as athletic, strong, creative and capable of expressing emotion by powerful movement and delicate gesture.'

Oppler – Les Sylphides (1915)

German artist Ernst Oppler created many sketches and paintings for various companies around the world. In 1912, he spent time at Covent Garden drawing ballerina Anna Pavlova. In the 1920s Oppler began depicting the Swedish Ballet as well as working on a large publication, 36 etchings of The Russian Ballet.

Fini – Le Palais du Cristal (1952)

Argentine Surrealist Leonor Fini was known for her strong portrayals of women. 'Fini used her fluent and pure line to emphasize a muscular form of the dancer’s body in her work,' explains Pollock.

She designed for the Paris Opera, George Balanchine’s ballet Palais de Crystal and for Maria Callas at the La Scala theater in Milan. In 1949 Frederick Ashton choreographed a ballet conceptualized by Fini, Le Rêve de Leonor (Leonor's Dream) with music by Benjamin Britten.

Longhi – The Dancing Lesson (1741)

For centuries dance has been an integral part of society, a key element of ceremonies, rituals and celebrations in all cultures. Jane Austen writes in Pride and Prejudice: ‘To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love’. The dance scenes in her novel are pivotal for the love to bloom, where couples could snatch intimate moments and enact longing gazes across crowded rooms. Pietro Longhi’s The Dancing Lesson shows a young girl practising dancing in preparation to attend such social occasions.

Titian – Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-3) 

Painting also captures dance in a broader sense, as a key part of the language of being human. Dr Minna Moore Ede, Associate Curator (Renaissance Painting) at The National Gallery, explains that 'Paintings can be full of movement and dance even if this is not their subject. Take Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne for example, in which Bacchus leaps most balletically out of his chariot, having fallen in love with Ariadne on sight, followed by his retinue of drunken, dancing revellers.’

Matisse – La danse (1909)

The human impulse to dance has been distilled by many artists throughout time. Take Henri Matisse’s La danse (1909) Despite its simplicity, there is a rhythm implied through the continuous succession of the figures, which evoke a sense of the liberating effects of dance.

Brown – Proscenium Works (1979-2011)

Taking dance paintings to new mediums is choreographer and artist Trisha Brown. Brown creates work as performance, using her body to create the painting. In this way, her artwork embodies dancing as its subject and inception. Above she performs her work Proscenium Works 1979–2011 in 2014.

Do you have a favourite dance painting?
Let us know in the comments below.

This article has 19 comments

  1. I love painting ballet dancers and have been extremely fortunate to have painted some of the dancers from the Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi. I like to capture the private intimate moments of the ephemeral life of a dancer by exploring not only their beauty and power but also their vulnerabilities. Great list of dance paintings and so many different styles. Thanks

  2. Sally Beazley-Long responded on 28 July 2016 at 10:42pm Reply

    A fascinating selection of images.
    Where can I read more of Griselda Pollock's writing on dancers?

  3. I think it is realy inspiring to show two art forms together! Thank you whoever had this idea!

  4. Lily responded on 29 July 2016 at 9:10am Reply

    I love Schiele, the Artist's wife seated. She always strikes me as a dancer.

  5. Guadalupe Lai Sang responded on 29 July 2016 at 8:31pm Reply

    I love the dancers rehearsal 1874 and Leslie Sylphides.

  6. Sally Beazley-Long responded on 30 July 2016 at 10:51am Reply

    It is Pollock's comment on Laura Knight that I am interested in following up but I've looked at the list of her publications and can't see where it might be. Can you point me in the right direction?
    Many thanks!

    • Rose Slavin (Former Assistant Content Producer) responded on 1 August 2016 at 5:26pm

      Hi Sally,

      I interviewed Pollock, so that quote doesn't come from any of her publications. If you would like to get in touch with her yourself her email is: G.F.S.Pollock@leeds.ac.uk

      All best,
      Rose

  7. Degas's interpretation of dancers is inspiring, love the technique he used in painting dancers at rest and in movement. Dance to me is the human body interacting with the chemistry of movement, and that indefinable magic of intense meditative introspection allowing the soul to fly free from the confines of the physical constraint. Dance transcends worldliness, it takes dancer and those who watch to a parallel universe, a higher place to which we all aspire translating to a passive communication in a pure form of creation.

  8. A dancers body is lithe, strong and graceful. It wasn't until I started painting a dancer in motion did I understand the anatomy, feeling the movement, recreating the energy of dance on canvas. It is cathartic. No one better illustrated the fantasy of where dance takes us than Degas.

  9. Sally Beazley-Long responded on 2 August 2016 at 4:06pm Reply

    Thank you Rose, that is most helpful! Pollock's comments made me think of one of my favourite dance pictures: 'Putting on Tights' (1926) by Laura Knight which indeed shows the muscular, trained body of a ballerina.

  10. Maureen Williams Haworth responded on 4 August 2016 at 6:55pm Reply

    Only limited by her aging body I watched Trisha Brown perform her painting (in charcoals) in Minneapolis and was intrigued! The drawing was predictable, but her insights were entertaining, practical and thoughtful after all she is a choreographer... As a spectacle one was enough.

    Maureen Williams Haworth

  11. Anna responded on 30 August 2016 at 5:48pm Reply

    Thank you so much for all this articles that you publish, which are educational as much as enjoyable.

    I hope you continue to publish this kind of articles about dance.

    • Mel Spencer (Senior Editor (Social Media)) responded on 30 August 2016 at 5:51pm

      Hi Anna,

      Many thanks for your comment. We will continue to publish articles like this around our art forms - we're very glad you enjoyed it.

      All the best,

      Mel

  12. Karin responded on 15 May 2017 at 7:23pm Reply

    why are there no toulouse lautrec?

  13. Liz responded on 15 May 2017 at 7:35pm Reply

    I love Degas, and have done since I was a child, but my favourite dance paintings are the "Obsession of Dance" by Robert Heindel.

  14. Carol williams responded on 16 May 2017 at 4:58pm Reply

    Is this an exhibition please? I can't find it on the website

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 16 May 2017 at 5:29pm

      Hi Carol,

      We're afraid not - although it'd be fantastic if one of the world's leading galleries drew all these works together under one roof!

      Chris

  15. William Swales responded on 19 May 2017 at 2:46pm Reply

    Love the idea of bringing together two of the finest art forms ever invented – but we mustn’t ignore one of the most powerful – capturing live performances on film for posterity.

    Like life, ballet is ephemeral, very spiritual, very emotional, and chock full of allegory and semiology. Ballet is thrilling and exciting because it exists ‘in the moment’ FOR the moment - in the instant that a dancer's body defies gravity to transform time and space into fleeting radiant beauty.

    The stories; the plot; the sub-plot; the sub-text; the allegories; the semiology; the music; the grace; the beauty; the elegance; the majesty; the strength; the stamina; the passion; the ethereal qualities; the messages about 'the human condition'; the dancers; the way that the dancers defy gravity; the dances and what they express (love the pas de trois 'dance of entanglements' because the characters embroiled in the dance have all got different agendas to the other two: the pas de trois in act two of Swan lake between the black swan; the prince; and Rothbart being a perfect example); the sets; the costumes; the lighting; and of course - the mime - mime that breaks down 'the fourth wall' as it cuts across ALL language barriers.

    A ballerinas aplomb takes YEARS to perfect - and they constantly seek perfection. In their eyes - its never right. In ours its perfection personified.

    A few years ago Naomi Climer (the current president of the Institute of Engineering Technology (IET)) worked in collaboration with the Royal Opera House (ROH) and The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Association in an experiment to globally present ‘live’ transmissions of sporting and art events to cinemas throughout the world so as to reach out and engage with a wider audience by providing a full ‘immersive’ experience to the general public for a fraction of the cost of attending a ‘live’ performance at the famous venues.

    To realise this vision, Naomi Climer harnessed the power of ‘big screen’ 4K Super-High Definition (SHD) digital capture, and projection equipment used in cinemas - married to SHD satellite transmission systems – to globally transmit the ‘Wimbledon Mens Finals’ as a ‘testing ground’. The results were outstanding – to the point that when the umpire on Wimbledon Centre Court requested ‘quiet please’ – the whole cinema audience fell into silence.

    From those humble acorn beginnings grew a large and mighty oak tree – and we can now view priceless art collections and watch stunning performances from the very best ballerinas and ballerinos alive in the world today – transmitted live to your local cinema from famous venues from all over the world – all for little more than the price of a cinema ticket.

    The notion of streaming live performances directly into cinemas is both fabulous and amazing. The popularity throughout the world of the ‘live cinema’ experience brings an entirely new perspective to breaking down ‘the fourth wall’ - and seeing our wonderful Royal Ballet perform ‘live’ in front of us on a giant cinema screen is testament to how one can see and be ‘immersed’ in stunning performances performed by the very best companies in the world. Check out the upcoming ‘Cinema live’ screenings at a cinema near YOU.

    Whilst geniuses such as Degas, have captured a ‘moment in time', what is important today - right NOW - is that we should appreciate that many operas and many ballets were never captured on film for posterity – and so they are lost in the annals of time forever - which is why ALL operas and ballets should be filmed because they are ALL part of our rich heritage of art – and with SHD 4K cameras with 7.1 sound capability now as cheap as chips there isn’t any excuse not to do so.

    Thankfully, Martin Scorsese has realised that many films that are true ‘works of art’ and has restored many ‘classics’ using the original ‘3-strip’ monochrome negatives from the Technicolor archives. Check out his restorations of the Powell and Pressburger classics – classics such as ‘The red shoes’ and Offenbach’s ballet/opera ‘Tales of Hoffman’ (sung in English) the best version ever - featuring some of the finest British talent of the period.

    And now – no – not a song – a suggestion. For centuries the Piatnik playing card company have produced packs of ‘themed’ playing cards – and one of their themed packs features ballet as its subject matter.

    The pack contains a short history of ballet together with 55 fabulous ballet images – from stunning photographs of prima ballerinas, through to classic ballet posters, and (of course) paintings by Degas and others – and you can own all of this for the price of a cup of tea (check out ROH shop).

    A rubber of bridge anyone?

    Have a lovely day

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