A young ballet dancer bends forward to massage her foot, while her somberly dressed older companion sits silently beside her on a bench. They appear to be waiting, perhaps for an audition or its outcome. The two figures are a study in contrasts: The athletic dancer dressed in a dazzling costume reflects the glamour and artifice of the stage, while the shabbily dressed, bent figure represents the drabness of everyday life.
Edgar Degas painted modern life; his subjects, including laundresses, milliners, nightclub singers, horse races, and the ballet, reflected contemporary Parisian occupations and diversions. From the 1860s onward, Degas frequented the Paris Opéra, where he made numerous studies of performances, rehearsals, and backstage scenes. Later, he would refine and combine these motifs in his studio, in exercises of daring technical skill and compelling psychological subtlety. Here he demonstrated his complete mastery of the pastel technique. Delicately blended strokes are combined with bold hatching and emphatic slashes; pink, blue, and creamy tones describe the dancer in contrast to the dark, severe form of the older woman.