Race Horses in front of the Stands (1866-8) by Degas
Interpretation of Impressionist Genre Painting

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Race Horses in Front of the
Stands (The Parade)
By Edgar Degas.
Regarded as one of the
greatest genre paintings of
the nineteenth century.

Race Horses in front of the Stands (1866-8)


Analysis of Race Horses in Front of the Stands
Other Paintings of Racehorses by Degas
Explanation of Other Impressionist Genre Paintings


Name: Race Horses in Front of the Stands (The Parade) (1866-8)
French: Chevaux de courses devant les tribunes
Artist: Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Type: Genre painting
Movement: Impressionism
Location: Musee d'Orsay, Paris

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


Edgar Degas, one of the best genre painters of the 19th century, is best-known for his outstanding figure painting of ballet dancers, working class women and racehorses. Although he completed numerous preparatory studies, all his Impressionist paintings were painted in the studio, not in the open air like those of Monet, Pissarro and Sisley. However, in his modernist approach, his brushwork, and his capture of the 'fleeting moment', as well as his wholehearted support for the Impressionist group - he showed at seven out of eight of the Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris, between the years of 1874 and 1886, and was an active (if argumentative) figure at the New Athens Cafe in the Place Pigalle near the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur - he was one of the leading Impressionist painters with a clear-headed approach and a wide circle of contacts. Sadly his abrasive temperament drove away many of his friends, leaving him a lonely and bitter bachelor.

NOTE: Important works by Degas include: The Bellelli Family (1858-67), The Ballet Class (1871-4), Absinthe (1876), Portraits at the Bourse (1879), Women Ironing (1884), and Woman Combing Her Hair (1887-90).

Analysis of Race Horses in Front of the Stands by Degas

Degas' love of horses began in 1860 when staying with his friends the Valpinjons at their chateau of Menil-Hubert in Normandy, near the Du Pin training stables. In this region of horse breeding and race meetings, Degas discovered the horse in action and made countless sketches of horsemen and horsewomen, hunt meets and jockeys preparing to race. From this point the subject of horse racing reoccurs time and again in Degas's painting. In 1862 he painted the Gentleman's Race, Before the Start (1862, Musee d'Orsay), and countless others thereafter. It is worth noting that racecourses were very fashionable places for society during the second half of the 19th century, as the bourgeoisie (including Degas) indulged their passion for this "sport of kings". Degas was also drawn to the stables and the racetrack by the opportunities they offered to study shapes and movement, a pursuit which was also influenced by the equestrian paintings by modern artists like Carle Vernet (1758-1836), Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) and Ernest Meissonier (1815-91).



Race Horses in Front of the Stands depicts a group of racehorses milling about before a race. In the background the nervous movement of a horse alludes to the imminence of the start. The influence of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints can be seen in the flat red colour of the jockey's vest (extreme right) and the green and yellow of the track surface, while the impact of photography is shown by the cropped edges of the picture, which are designed to imitate the effect of a photograph. The diagonal lines of the painting, the contrasts of light, especially the shadows of the horses also underline the perspective as far as the vanishing point located in the centre of the composition.

As always with Degas, the beauty of the composition is concentrated in the drawing, and he deliberately chose a point before the race had begun when he could observe those attitudes and movements that his eye could actually follow. (Galloping horses had always posed problems for 19th century artists.) The picture also illustrates one of Degas' numerous experiments in technique. Here he has painted with essence (probably turpentine) on canvas. The result is an increased brightness and clearness in the whole range of colours, which enhances the gaiety of the picture, with its tiny personages depicted in simple blobs of colour behind the fence on the left.

Degas was the first, thanks to photography, who was able to examine minutely the different movements of the animal and thus observe correctly its various attitudes. The writer Paul Valery (1871-1945) stated that Degas was one of the first to study equine movements by means of Major Muybridge's instantaneous photographs, such as his series on Animal Locomotion. (For more background, see: History of Photography 1800-1900.) What interested him in horses and dancers alike was the theme of instability, which also haunted Monet when he painted the variations of light in the constantly changing sky. Towards the end of his life Degas perpetuated in statuettes of bronze some of the attitudes of horses which he had studied all his life in thousands of drawings.

Other Paintings of Racehorses by Degas

Masterpieces of race course art by Degas include: At the Races in the Countryside (1869, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); Race Horses at Longchamp (1871-4, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); Race Horses (1873, The Athenaeum); At the Races (1877-80, Musee d'Orsay, Paris); Before the Race (1882-4, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore); Race Horses in a Landscape (1894, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum); and many others.

NOTE: For the story behind French Impressionism and the group of young painters who started it, see our 10-part series, beginning: Impressionism: Origins, Influences.

Explanation of Other Impressionist Genre Paintings

• The Balcony (1868) by Manet.
Musee d'Orsay.

• Bazille's Studio (1870) by Frederic Bazille.
Musee d'Orsay.

• The Cradle (1873) by Berthe Morisot.
Musee d'Orsay.

• The Floor Scrapers (1875) by Gustave Caillebotte.
Musee d'Orsay.

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Renoir.
Musee d'Orsay.

• The Swing (La Balancoire) (1876) by Renoir.
Musee d'Orsay.

• Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte.
Art Institute of Chicago.

The Road-Menders, Rue de Berne (1878) by Manet.
Private Collection.


• For analysis of other Impressionist genre paintings, see: Homepage.

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