Dance has long been a subject explored by many of the world’s most respected artists. And why wouldn’t it be? This form of expression has played an important role in human life for thousands of years — from early participatory dance, to performance dance as we know it today.
With its unique ability to unite, inspire and capture the imagination, it's no wonder that the essence of dance has been such a profound source of inspiration for artists throughout the ages, who would attempt to document or capture it within their famed works. Join us as we showcase some of our favourite historical works of art centred around our favourite subject of dance.
Lola de Valence - Édouard Manet (1862)
This 1862 oil portrait of the famous Spanish ballet dancer Dolores Melea (stage name Lola de Valance) was part of a series of works that Manet painted, reflecting the popular taste for Spanish themes during that time. Manet presents Dolores in the moments before performing on stage, (the theatre audience can be seen to the right of the painting) but in actual fact, he painted her at his studio in Paris and added in the audience later on!
The Ballet Class - Edgar Degas (1871-1874)
What initially began as a commission for French opera singer Jean-Baptiste Faure (Degas actually ended up delivering a similar piece to Faure entitled The Dance Class) between 1871-1874, The Ballet Class turned out to become one of his most famous dance paintings. Degas was a prolific painter of dancers throughout his career — in fact over half of his artistic output features dancers either on stage, rehearsing or at rest.
Seated Dancer in Pink Tights - Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1890)
One of the most prominent post-impressionist painters, Toulouse-Lautrec is best known for documenting 19th century theatrical life in Paris. The subject of this painting is a ballerina in delicate dancewear comprising of ballet shoes, dance tights and tutu. She appears to be tired, with her hair loose, sat in a slouched position… perhaps she has just finished class?
Seviliana (Dancer with Castanet) - Robert Henri (1904)
Completed in 1904, this oil painting by American Realist artist Robert Henri features a beautifully realised portrait of a “Sevillana” dancer (Sevillana being a folk dance from Seville in Spain). In the early part of the 20th Century, Henri was taken by a highly romanticised idea of Spain and was inspired to capture the dancer in traditional Sevillana dress, complete with castanet!
Le Bal Populaire (The Local Dance) - Raoul Dufy (1906)
Raoul Dufy had been inspired by his exposure to Henri Matisse’s Fauvist works, resulting in him adopting the style for which he became famous with this early foray into Fauvism. Le Bal Populaire shows couples dancing outdoors, in what appears to be a French town judging by the flags!
An orchestra seated in the background is playing music to which those in the foreground are dancing to. The style, composition and colour of this oil painting combine to create a vitality that beautifully conveys the raw joy of music and dance.
Dance (I) - Henri Matisse (1909)
In 1909, Matisse painted the first of two related oil paintings depicting four figures dancing. The arrangement of Matisse’s dancers closely resembles that of Blake’s composition of the fairies in the aforementioned Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. Dance (I). This is a compositional study for a later painting called The Dance, which was produced for a Russian art collector.
Matisse was particularly fond of Dance (I) saying it was to him: “the overpowering climax of luminosity”. Many people adore this painting for its dreamlike quality and captivating use of heightened pale colours, and it's easy to see why.
Artist's Studio "The Dance" - Roy Lichtenstein (1974)
Recognise anything here? Artist's Studio "The Dance" incorporates a painting within a painting. Here Lichtenstein recreates an aforementioned work by Matisse, featuring a view of his own studio in 1909 which includes his masterpiece “The Dance” in the background. However, one key difference in style is that Lichtenstein presents Matisse’s dancers through the lens of Pop Art, an art movement for which became his trademark.
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing - William Blake (1786)
As a pioneer of visual arts of the Romantic period, the subject of this 18th century watercolour is the last scene from Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dancing "hand in hand with fairy grace”, the final scene of the play sees the characters in the painting blessing everyone with best wishes and good fortune, with Puck explaining that the events in the play itself are nothing more than a dream. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has become an extremely popular ballet production since the debut of George Balanchine’s interpretation of the play in 1962.
Untitled (Dance) - Keith Haring (1987)
Keith Haring’s signature art style is highly recognisable across the globe, and his 1987 piece Untitled (Dance) is no exception. Featuring five dancers, Haring utilises vivid primary colours and bold lines to create a sense of movement. As with all his work, Untitled (Dance) creates a sense of fun, life and unity, and what better ways are there to describe dance, right?