In the 1870s Edgar Degas became fascinated with ballet dancers, paying frequent visits to the classes where the Opèra's ballet master trained groups of young girls, the so-called petits rats . Here seven young dancers fill the page with their pliés , lunges, and kicks. Often Degas did not even bother to sketch their heads, focusing instead on their bodies' contortions and their outstretched arms and legs. A flurry of lines captures their fluttering skirts and short, pulled-back hair.
The writer Edmond de Goncourt wrote in his journal in 1873: Yesterday I spent the afternoon in the studio of a painter named Degas. After many attempts, many bearings being taken in every direction, he has fallen in love with the modern and, in the modern, he has cast his choice upon laundresses and dancers. . . . And right before us, seized upon the spot, is the graceful twisting of movements and gestures of the little monkey-girls. . . . He is the man I have seen up to now who has best captured, in reproducing modern life, the soul of this life.