Orchestra musicians, 1872
The painting had already been in the possession of a friend for two years when Degas asked to have it back so he could carry out a major change. He trimmed approximately five centimetres from either side and then added a strip of about twenty centimetres at the top. What did he achieve by doing so? Essentially, an entirely new painting.
Degas heightened the contrast between the light shades of the dancers on the stage and the orchestra musicians’ black backs. At the same time he created a double perspective, almost like in a collage, and opened the painting up for further juxtapositions as well: foreground and background, faces and backs of heads, old men and young women. The two worlds are also differentiated by painting style – the foreground meticulous, the goings-on on the stage quite sketchy. Ultimately, however, it is one world, the world of Parisian artists. What is featured here is the entertainment business in which, on behalf of the public and its pleasure, professional and dedicated efforts are undertaken off the stage as well. Degas painted some two hundred canvases on the theme of ballet, of which some eighty per cent are scenes behind the scenes. This work is one of the few in which he unites the two – what the audience is accustomed to seeing on the stage and what usually remains concealed from view.