Men like these had authority over who obtained plum roles and who was cast off. As a girl’s “patron,” he could provide her with an opulent lifestyle, paying for a comfortable apartment or private lessons to elevate her standing in the ballet corps. The brothel culture of the ballet was so pervasive, as historian Lorraine Coons remarks in her essay “Artiste or coquette? Les petits rats of the Paris Opera ballet,” that even successful dancers who did not resort to prostitution would likely have been suspected to have done so anyway.
The sexual politics that played out in the foyer de la danse was of great interest to Degas. In fact, very few of his depictions of the dance show an actual performance. Instead, the artist hovers behind the wings, backstage, in class, or at a rehearsal. In works like L’Étoile (1878), he depicts the curtain call at the end of the performance, with the curtsying dancer bathed in the unflattering glare of the lights. Behind her, a man in an elegant black tuxedo lurks in the wings, his face hidden by the goldenrod curtain. Such sinister figures also appear in works like Dancers, Pink and Green (ca. 1890). Sometimes, the viewer himself is thrust into the leering perspective of the abonnés: In Dancers at the Old Opera House (ca. 1877), the action onstage is seen from behind the curtain.
“People call me the painter of dancing girls,” Degas once explained to Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard. “It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.” But Degas didn’t care tremendously about the ballet as an art form, let alone frilly pastel tutus. He endeavored to capture the reality of the ballet that lurked behind the artifice of the cool, carefully constructed choreography.