The orchestra of the Opera

The orchestra of the Opera

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Title: The orchestra of the Opera.

Author : DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

Creation date : 1868

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 56.5 - Width 46.2

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 93DE6046 / RF 2417

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Publication date: June 2015

Historical context

When he painted this picture in 1870, Degas knew the Opera well. He had met members of the orchestra at musical evenings at his father's or at the Manets' and, for several years, had assiduously frequented the beautiful hall in the rue Le Peletier. When it, which burned down in 1873, was replaced two years later (with great fanfare) by the Palais Garnier, he quickly took up his habits.
A subscriber from 1885, we know that he went there a hundred and seventy-seven times in the seven years that followed. Sigurd by Reyer, Rigoletto by Verdi, Guillaume Tell by Rossini, La Favorite de Donizetti, Faust by Gounod, The African, The Huguenots, Robert the devil by Meyerbeer, are the works he saw most often. They were the flagship of a genre then in decline: the "great French opera", which Meyerbeer had triumphantly enthroned in Paris in 1831, with Robert the devil, of which Degas painted twice the famous ballet where, in an impressive decoration of Cicéri, nuns, come back to life, delivered themselves to a frantic bacchanal. Just as much as opera, dance attracted Degas to the Palais Garnier: the ballets, but also, on the stage or in the foyer, the exercises to which his status as a subscriber gave him free access.

Image Analysis

One would be mistaken if one believed to see in this table a realistic representation of the orchestra of the Opera of Paris in 1870. Besides that several of the characters which appear there were not instrumentalists, Degas, in order to emphasize its friend the bassoonist Désiré Dihau, seated him in the first row, while the bassoon was usually placed behind the cellos and double basses. A change as deliberate as the very original framing of the painting, which presents the orchestra at an angle and only shows the dancers with their legs and tutus.
From the proscenium box protrudes the head of composer Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894); then, from left to right, appear successively: the cellist Louis-Marie Pilet (1815-1877); behind Pilet, the Spanish tenor Lorenzo Pagans (1838-1883); crowned with curly white hair, Gard, "director of the Opera dance"; thoughtfully playing the violin, the painter Alexandre Piot-Normand (1830-1902); looking towards the room, Louis Souquet, author in 1884 of a capriccio-waltz for piano; then turned to the stage, Doctor Pillot, perhaps Adolphe Jean Désiré Pillot (1832-?), admitted to the Paris Conservatory in the music theory class on November 21, 1846; in front of him, in the center, the bassoonist Désiré Dihau (1833-1909), at the Opera from 1862 to December 31, 1889; then the flautist Henry Altès (1826-1895), at the Opera from February 1, 1848 to September 1, 1876; Zéphirin-Joseph Lancien (1831-1896), violinist at the Opera where he was solo violin from 1856 to December 31, 1889; Jean-Nicolas Joseph Gout (1831-1895), violinist at the Opera from April 23, 1850 to December 31, 1894; finally, probably Achille Henri Victor Gouffé (born around 1805), first double bass of the Opera.


Very quickly the dancers became one of Degas' favorite themes and the main source of his success with the public. Although he was rarely literally inspired by actual performances, what his paintings, pastels and sculptures evoke is the world of the great French romantic ballet - La Sylphide, Giselle… -, a genre that is also on the decline. Then professor at the Opera, Jules Perrot, whom Degas performed several times, had been the great dancer and choreographer of the Romantic era, before becoming ballet master in Saint Petersburg where, thanks to his successor, Marius Petipa, associated with Tchaikovsky, the French ballet experienced a new glory, while it was dying in Paris.
But this decline did not mean that of dance, on the contrary. In the 1900s, linked to the rediscovery of the body, which was also witnessed by the early vogue of sport - it was in 1896 that the first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens - dance was transformed, breaking with figures stereotypes of academicism. Both expressive and stylized, it was first the “other dance” of the American Isadora Duncan. Then came the Ballets Russes which Diaghilev made triumph in Paris from 1909, and which seems to announce a set of pastels produced by Degas in 1899, "Russian dancers".

  • music
  • opera
  • Paris Opera
  • Second Empire
  • ballet


Henri LOYRETTE Degas Paris, Arthème Fayard, 1991.

To cite this article

Georges LIÉBERT, "The orchestra of the Opera"

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