100 Days of Art History Jinjins


A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers

I just think this painting is funny. It was in a book of masterpieces from the Met's collection, and it tickled me when I saw it. It's kind of a portrait of this lady, but it's mostly a still life of the comically large bouquet of flowers that's pushing her out of the frame.

This painting is by Degas. He's best known for his paintings and pastels of ballerinas, which record the grace of their movements both onstage and backstage. I actually originally wanted to draw myself as a Degas ballerina, but when I went looking, I found that almost none of them clearly show a face. This would make a faceswap with myself difficult. So I was happy to find this one that fit the project's needs instead, so I could still at least check Degas off my list.

Since doing this entry, I've learned more about Paris of the time and about Degas. Two things stand out to me. The first: When Degas was painting the ballerinas, they weren't thought of elegant high-class dancers like they are now. They were nicknamed "petits rats" and were often poor and expected to be sexually available. There is more excellent information about this in this lecture on the MFA Boston's YouTube channel. The second: Degas had a misanthropic streak and was arguably an incel. He had a confused conception of marriage and struggled to form close relationships with women (probably because he couldn't keep himself from insulting them.) I got a clearer picture of this from Sebastian Smee's book The Art of Rivalry. Knowing this, I am now less surprised that Degas's ballerinas have such vague faces.

I do still love Degas's ballerina paintings. They're so graceful. But you know what? I've now discovered Zinaida Serebriakova's ballerina paintings as well, which I might like even better.

Reference image is from The Met, where this painting is today.

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