This oil painting by Edgar Degas was made in 1872, and gives us a worm’s eye view of a stage on which ballerinas dance, and places us directly behind three musicians in the orchestra pit.
The musicians that have their backs to us play, from left to right, a violin, a cello, and an oboe, respectively. Along with their instruments, their differing hair colors (brown, black, and white) give these men character: they aren’t just standard extras in the performance, they are humans contributing their passion to it.
Beyond layers of sheet music and violin bow tips, we see the edge of the stage. A line of flowery-dressed dancers trails off into the background, while one stands apart from them, gazing forward open-armed. Though she smiles toward the audience, the position that we are in makes it seem that she is looking towards the pit, and by extension, at us.
The backdrop that the ballerinas are set against is abstract and impenetrable. Wide brush strokes of silver, blue, and green only just define a tree and sky. The crude and scattered markings become smoother around the figures of the ballerinas. It is obvious that Degas wants us to be paying attention to the musicians in the foreground—the little people whom he has made big.
The image is split down the middle horizontally by the stage, defining two separate worlds. The ballerinas are adored by the audience, floating beatifically across the stage, while the musicians below them often go unnoticed. The top of the image is also somewhat divided, but vertically, subtly pointing out the greater admiration given to the leading role than to the background characters. Upon close inspection, one can see contempt on each one of the secondary ballerinas faces. It’s hard to believe that this is an accident, given the expression of the lead dancer.
It’s likely that Degas was inspired to paint this image after witnessing a performance similar to it, and realizing the important roles the musicians and minor dancers play. In creating Musicians in the Orchestra, he lets us into his mind; we enter into a realization of the profound within the forgotten details.
This paper was written for my Visual Art and the Catholic Imagination college course. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.