Misty & Degas

The Art of Dance

Today's blog post centers on three of my favorite topics: dance, art and a black woman. Misty Copeland recently paired with Harper's Bazaar to revive Edgar Degas's most famous ballet works for a new exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. This post breaks down the style and meaning of Degas' pieces and how these aspects translate in Copeland's recreation. I haven't taken an art history class since high school, so bear with me.


"Breakfast in Bed" by Mary Cassatt. A reoccurring theme in her work is the mother and child relationship.

Edgar Degas is a French artist from the late 19th century. He is one of the founders of impressionism, even though he rejected the term. His most reoccurring subject is ballet. Ballet is an art of perfection, but he features what people wouldn't regularly see.

 Impressionism is a 19th century movement that originated with a group of talented artists in Paris such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet and Mary Cassatt. Powerful art institutions moving into an age of photography shunned these artists because they rejected salons.

Impressionism is a representational art aimed to capture the momentary, sensory effect of a scene. I would consider Degas' work impressionism because of the unfinished style his paintings have. They look more like a sketch.

The Star

Scientific thought during Degas' time was beginning to recognize that what the eye perceived and what the brain understood were two different things. Impressionism sought to capture the optical illusion of what the brain perceived. Valentino interprets what appear to be flecks of color on the original ballerina's dress as flowers on the dress Copeland wears.

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

This sculpture catches a ballerina lost in a moment of her own. Modeled in colored wax and adorned with real hair and a fabric costume, this piece broke with 19th century academic practice. It was definitely the source of much controversy during Degas' time.

I definitely feel like I can see myself in that sculpture...Ballet was just the one thing that brought me to life.
— Misty Copeland on "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen"

"Opera rats," as young dancers with the Paris Opera ballet were called, often came from working-class families; a story similar to Copeland's humble beginnings in Bellflower, CA. The original subject is poised between childhood and womanhood, just as Copeland is crossing those lines as she models this shot. Both of their postures are casual by ballet standards, but still erect and dignified.


Japanese prints influenced Degas and a lot of other impressionist artists. The prints held a sense of flatness and bold linear designs, a style replicated in this piece. Degas worked to strip away the illusion of ballet and portray the hard work, boredom and simplistic beauty of behind the scenes. In this scene, Copeland mimicks the original ballerina as she fixes her ribbon with her feet grounded and head down.

Swaying Dancer (Dancer in Green)

Impressionists loosened their brushwork and avoided the clarity of form to distinguish the more important elements of a picture and to show movement. The dancer's face, legs and arms hold the most detail in the image. You can see Copeland's dress also starting to fade away to draw more attention to her face and limbs.

It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.
— Edgar Degas to Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard

These two images differ in a distinct way. Misty shows a sense of strength that the original ballerina lacks. I know you all must be tired of hearing me say this, but Copeland's skin glows in the soft light.

The entire revival of this work by a black woman hits home for me because I remember learning about most of the art movements erasing, demonizing or degrading black people. Misty enters herself into the centerpiece of a famous artist's famous works. She is, in a way, rewriting history. 

For the full spread, check out the March issue of Harper's Bazaar releasing on February 16, 2016. Also follow the @nycdanceproject on Instagram...click the link to see why.

--- Ms. Parker ---