Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 28, 2009
Annette Dixon The Dancer: Degas, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec Exh. cat. Portland, OR: Portland Art Museum, 2008. 256 pp.; 269 color ills. Cloth $39.95 (9781883124274)
Exhibition schedule: Portland Art Museum, February 2–May 11, 2008

The exhibition The Dancer: Degas, Forain, Toulouse-Lautrec, assembled by Annette Dixon, curator of prints and drawings at the Portland Art Museum, brought together a stunning group of works in various media—paintings, sculptures, drawings, and lithographs—by three artists whose careers were defined in large measure by their attraction to the subject of dance. For those of us who were unable to see this show in person, its catalogue presents exquisite, large-scale color reproductions that allow the reader to note subtle nuances of line, facture, and support. These illustrations are especially valuable as The Dancer mixes old chestnuts such as Edgar Degas’s Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen (ca. 1880–81) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge—La Goulue (1891) with less familiar pieces like Lautrec’s Dancer (1895–96), which features a ballerina made ghoulishly green by the surrounding stage flats, and Jean-Louis Forain’s On the Stage (1912), where a male patron’s ominously enlarged hand cups the chin of a young dancer. Enhancing our understanding of these works are five thought-provoking essays that weave together different aspects of the exhibition’s theme, as well as catalogue entries written by Dixon along with Marnie P. Stark, assistant curator of prints, and Ingrid Berger, curatorial assistant, of the Portland Art Museum. Together these texts deftly synthesize social history, the artists’ biographies, and incisive formal analysis to shed new light on late nineteenth-century representations of the female dancer.

As anyone interested in this particular subset of nineteenth-century art knows, The Dancer followed on the heels of two exhibitions primarily focused on the dance imagery of Degas and Lautrec: Degas and the Dance, shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2002–2003, and Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre, organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and the Art Institute of Chicago, in 2005 (click here for review). Indeed, three of the contributors to the catalogue published in conjunction with The Dancer—Mary Weaver Chapin, Jill DeVonyar, and Richard Kendall—wrote lengthy essays in those earlier, impressively researched catalogues. Given that a significant portion of The Dancer covers the same territory, the great promise of this catalogue would seem to lie in the development of connections and contrasts among the work of Degas, Lautrec, and their lesser-known colleague Forain. The inclusion of Forain—a painter and illustrator whose images of dancers were shown in several of the Impressionist exhibitions, as well as published in such mass-media venues as Le Courrier français—prompts new questions about the popularity of, and audiences for, images of dancers in the late nineteenth century. Forain’s presence also intimated that this exhibition would move past outmoded prejudices against purportedly minor artists and media. The Dancer accomplishes many of these ambitious and worthy goals, but stops short of providing the fullest possible account of the links between these three figures and of the dancer’s role within late nineteenth-century visual culture.

Two general essays—Dixon’s “Investigations of Modernity: The Dancer in the Work of Degas, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec” and Kendall’s “In the Wings: Space and Narrative in Degas, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec”—provide an introduction to all three artists and relate their work to one another. Taking the dancer to be a prototypically modern subject, Dixon argues that each artist employed this motif to explore the various dimensions of a “rapidly changing urban life” (14). Kendall’s contribution shifts emphasis from the social context for these images to the status of dance within an artistic dialogue among these and other artists of the late nineteenth century. Building on his previous scholarship in this area, he focuses on Degas’s influential paintings of dancers at the Paris Opéra from the 1870s, the artistic and commercial success of which induced a number of younger painters and draftsmen to emulate them—even after Degas himself had “moved on to revise and inflect” (41) his depictions of this subject in his later work.

These broad introductory texts are followed by more focused essays. Florence Valdès-Forain (“Forain at the Opéra: Fascinated Observer”) and Chapin (“The Dancers of Toulouse-Lautrec: Public Lives and Private Performances”) analyze these artists’ unique approaches to depicting the dancer. Both authors show how Forain and Lautrec strategically used the dancer’s image to help them negotiate the separate yet interconnected worlds of fine art, popular culture, and the mass media. The catalogue ends with DeVonyar’s “Re-Presenting the Dance: Degas’s Inheritance and Legacy” which places Degas’s work (and, to a lesser extent, that of Forain and Toulouse-Lautrec) within the realities of, and rhetoric about, nineteenth-century ballet. Coming back around to Dixon’s theme, DeVonyar suggests that these images of dance can only be fully understood if the complex “life beside and beyond the scenes” (199) in the theaters frequented by Degas, Forain, and Lautrec is taken into account. While that life behind the curtain proves as elusive as the ethereal dancer herself, DeVonyar’s analysis of the poses and spaces portrayed in these images brings us as close to the “physical realities” (212) of these women’s daily existence as we can hope to come.

The Dancer is, explicitly, a comparative enterprise which obscures some of the parallels that might have been drawn among Degas, Forain, and Lautrec’s dance images. Tantalizing tidbits within several of these essays inform the reader about the personal and professional relationships between these three men. Kendall suggests that Degas may have invited Forain to participate in the Impressionist exhibition of 1879 in which the latter displayed watercolors and fan designs similar to Degas’s—though the precise circumstances surrounding Forain’s entry remain unclear. That Forain viewed Degas, an older and more established artist, as both a colleague and mentor is hinted at in a portrait sketch of Degas by Forain, which he captioned “On the Lookout for a Star” (81). Expanding upon these connections, Valdès-Forain suggests that the “character types” of the dancer and the abonné (a male subscriber to the Opéra), central to the work of all three artists, can be traced back to Paul Gavarni’s popular caricatures of the mid-nineteenth century. She also makes brief mention of an early drawing by Lautrec featuring a pastiche of Forain’s dance images that, unfortunately, is not reproduced in the catalogue. Similarly, Chapin discusses portions of a mural depicting ballet dancers painted by Lautrec in about 1885–86 in the Auberge Ancelin, a small country inn east of Paris. Analyzing a fragment of that work, now called Ballet Dancers (1885), Chapin argues that Lautrec adopted Degas’s “compositional conventions of strong diagonal movement, unusual cropping at the margins, and the pronounced intrusion in the lower right corner of an object just outside the frame” (139). She attributes the iconography of another portion of the mural, depicting an abonné adjusting a dancer’s costume in her dressing room, to the influence of Forain. These and other connections could have been elaborated more fully, though the presence of so many detailed illustrations within the catalogue allows the reader to do so independently.

Moreover, the authors make some distinctions among the three artists that undermine the book’s integrative premise. To some extent, this is a result of significant variations in the artists’ styles and in the types of dance they chose to depict. In addition, Dixon rightly points out that “each [artist] took a different approach to depicting the social tensions and contradictions” (14) that the subject of dance entailed in the nineteenth century. Yet at times these differences feel imposed upon the artists rather than stemming from the works themselves. In her conclusion, for example, Dixon defines the contribution of each artist in a sentence apiece: “Degas draws attention to the artifice of the spectacle and evokes the physical reality of the ballerina’s life behind the scenes. Forain castigates the social inequities that made the exchange of money for sex a dilemma in the dancer’s life. And Lautrec uses sexual references in his depictions of chahuteuses both to titillate and to stress the humanity of women whom society treated as commodities” (37). These artists’ complex treatments of the themes of sex, commerce, and work in their images of dancers make such distinctions feel slightly forced. Indeed, the characteristics that Dixon draws out here could be applied in varying extents to the work of all three.

One also notes throughout the catalogue recapitulations of formalist tropes about the quality and originality of these artists’ work. Dixon describes Degas as preoccupied primarily with “formal concerns”; Forain, in contrast, is characterized as “a caricaturist and illustrator first” (14). “Rather than study the dancer’s body or hermotions,” Dixon asserts, Forain “pursued almost single-mindedly the interaction between dancers and their admirers. . . . With this subject he created satirical narratives, eschewing Degas’s formal vision” (26). Such comments echo portions of Kendall’s argument: extending a point made in Degas and the Dance, he claims that Degas’s treatment of the dancer in his oil paintings markedly diverges from images of the Opéra in period newspapers and prints (including Degas’s own). (See the chapter on “Degas Backstage” in Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall, Degas and the Dance, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002, 63–87). While significant, this insight tends to minimize the achievements of figures like Forain, who is associated with an inferior, “journalistic-realist mode” (44) of representation. Thus when Kendall compares Forain’s Intermission. On Stage (1879) to Degas’s Yellow Dancers (In the Wings) (1874–76), he cites the “intrusion of a large male figure at left” (46) and the “exaggerated, almost caricatural posture of the principal ballerina” (48) in Forain’s work as constituting a fundamental break with Degas’s approach to the subject. In Intermission. On Stage, he writes, “the sexual traffic of the theater world, a phenomenon extensively documented in the cartoons, cheap journalism, and popular literature of the time, is crudely set out in a painting for all to see” (48). In other words, Forain transgressed the boundaries that separate artworks from caricatures by transposing the “language of illustration” to the “alien territory of painting” (49). As for Lautrec, who, for the most part, is exempted from these high/low distinctions—perhaps because his oeuvre is so deeply engaged in destroying them—Kendall argues that he “was both more limited in his interest in the ballet than Forain and more complex, imaginative, and alertly self-critical as an artist,” showing “his painterly respect—and his good sense—by not challenging Degas on his painterly home ground” (50, 51). These sorts of distinctions may be necessary, and it may be impossible—or, at least, a distortion of the historical record—to place Forain on equal footing with his peers. Yet one cannot help wishing that the authors had relied a bit less on such art-historical master narratives.

The Dancer is at its best when it concentrates on the artists’ common motives and concerns. DeVonyar’s essay exemplifies this approach, bringing together the work of Degas, Forain, and Lautrec as well as myriad texts and images that influenced these artists and their viewers. Comparing prints that depict the ballerina as “an unearthly, feminine being” (204) with cartes-de-visite that emphasize her worldly glamour and illustrations from La Vie parisienne that suggest her erotic appeal, DeVonyar shows how easily one discourse about the dancer slipped into another. Degas, Forain, and Lautrec’s images play with these contradictions in the dancer’s reputation: she appears at once alluring and aloof, strong and fragile, artist and kept woman. “The dancer” is itself an elastic term encompassing a wide variety of figures—from the chahuteuse Jane Avril to the modern dancer Loïe Fuller, and from Eugénie Fiocre, a star ballerina, to Marie van Goethem, a lowly member of the corps. That women of such differing age, class, choreographic style, and ability could all be assimilated to this category indicates the complex status of dance in late nineteenth-century culture, and suggests one reason that the dancer has proven to be an enduring figure of fascination.

Juliet Bellow
Professor, Department of Art, American University