10 Famous Dance Paintings That Will Make You Want to Join

Famous dance paintings have always been popular because of their representation of the past and their connection to the present. Here are 10 French paintings that do just that.

Nov 21, 2020By Gabrielle Probert, BA French Literature
famous dance paintings
Le ballet espagnol by Édouard Manet, 1862; with Dance by Henri Matisse, 1909-10; and Dance at Bougival by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1883


Many French artists throughout the ages have created masterpieces with dance as the subject and have left us with numerous famous dance paintings. These French paintings of dance capture intimate moments of daily life instead of overtly posed and staged subject matter. Dance is an art form that has prominence across all cultures and time periods, expressing emotions and allowing connections between people. Like art, it is constantly evolving and changing with the times, but we can still find the same passion when we compare dance from the past to dance in the present. Here are 10 famous dance paintings that look like so much fun, you might want to join in!


Famous Dance Paintings Of The 19th Century 

1. A Morning, The Dance of the Nymphs By Camille Corot

A Morning, The Dance of the Nymphs by Camille Corot, 1850, via The Musée d’Orsay, Paris


A Morning, The Dance of the Nymphs in a French painting of mythological nymphs drunkenly dancing while being watched from the trees. Camille Corot has them placed in this landscape painting as if their real location were a theater stage, not the forest. The dancers appear in a bright patch of sunlight as if standing center stage and the trees behind them with the spectators are like the curtain. This change in scenery takes away the deliberateness and structure the work would express if placed in a formal setting. Even the original title, Une matinée, la danse des nymphes, alludes to the influence of the theater with the use of matinée, a performance that takes place during the day. 


With the scene placed in the forest, we have the softness and spontaneity of people enjoying themselves in a natural, realistic fashion. With this painting, Corot attempted to break away from more classical forms of painting mythological creatures to more naturalistic works, but as we can see with the figures he included, he was not quite ready to let go of his old style.


2. Le Ballet Espagnol By Édouard Manet

Le ballet espagnol by Édouard Manet, 1862, via the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.


The title of this famous dance painting means “The Spanish Ballet.”  Dancers from the Royal Theater of Madrid had come to perform at the Paris Hippodrome and Manet insisted they come back to his studio so he could paint them. He included the elaborate details of their dress and the vibrancy of the colors, which are enhanced by the contrast between light and dark, to create an uplifting portrayal of the famous dancers in the middle of one of their performances. The romanticism of the work highlights the French impression of Spanish art and culture that began in the 1830s. We feel the rhythm between the dancers and the presence of musicians rounds out the full experience of the performance. Even the figures in the shadows bring more intrigue to the scene, urging us to investigate further.

3. The Dancing Class By Edgar Degas

The Dancing Class by Edgar Degas, 1870, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


We cannot talk about famous French dance paintings without including Edgar Degas. He produced over 1500 drawings, paintings, prints, and sculptures of dancers, particularly focusing on ballerinas. He is classified as an Impressionist painter, but his relationship with the movement was complicated. He greatly disliked their practice of painting en plein air (outside). 


The Dancing Class is a famous dance painting of a rehearsal and was actually painted in Degas’s studio. He was not permitted backstage at the Paris Opéra to paint so he had to invite his subjects to join him in his studio. Like a photograph, we can see there is more happening in this scene that has been cropped out. The piano is cut off and behind it, we see girls chatting and looking to the left, indicating there are more girls we cannot see. 


Many things are happening throughout the painting; girls talking and laughing, one girl still practicing, the teacher playing the violin, and even one girl who stands alone, upset about something. These small moments all happening at once are to emphasize the sincerity of this scene. Degas is known for works like this one, where daily life is the subject and it is left as close to normal as possible. 


4. Bal Du Moulin De La Galette By Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Bal du moulin de la galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1876, via The Musée d’Orsay, Paris


One of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s most famous paintings, the Bal du moulin de la galette shows a bustling, outdoor dance party, frozen in time. The artist’s mastery of impressionism keeps the movement alive in the work. The vibrancy of the colors and the use of light and shade bring an effortless realness to the work. Just look at how Renoir has given the appearance of light filtering through the treetops overhead playing across the different people. The small details of the work emphasize the many different stories happening all at once in the space of this ball. There are people holding each other as they sway to the music, women chatting over their shoulder to friends nearby, a queue of people watching something interesting out of frame, many different moments of life we can relate to. 


A world-renowned French painting, the Bal du moulin de la galette can be seen today hanging in Musée d’Orsay in Paris. 


5. Dance At Bougival By Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Dance at Bougival by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1883, via The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


We return again to Renoir with his famous dance painting Dance at Bougival. Bougival is a small commune 15 km from Paris and was a popular location for painting among Impressionists. In contrast to his painting Bal du moulin de la galette, this painting is concentrated on only two people, friends of Renoir. There is little background shown, but what is there tells us that these two are at a ball or party, probably similar to the one shown in Bal de moulin de la galette. The focus on just these two people almost creates a small bubble around them, showing them completely entranced with each other and their dance, ignoring the commotion around them. 


While the background still holds elements of impressionism, the dancers are depicted much more realistically, which also distinguishes them from the ambiguous party around them. This painting also has two companion works that were painted the same year, Dance in the City and Dance in the Country


6. Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven By Paul Gauguin

Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven by Paul Gauguin, 1888, via The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


In contrast to the other paintings in this article, we are presented with a very different depiction of dance. Similar to Dance by Matisse, Paul Gauguin’s painting Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven shows a more folk-inspired dance rather than the large, crowded dance paintings of Renoir or Toulouse-Lautrec. The girls in this famous dance painting are also forming a circle like the figures in Dance, but the setting and their dress show a much more realistic scene than the Fauvist style of Dance. 


A group of peasant girls enjoy themselves together in their idyllic village. The soft colors and forms help to emphasize the peacefulness of their lives. There is not the drama of the large dance hall scenes or elaborate ballets, but the simplicity of a life away from the city. Pont-Aven is a small commune in northwestern France and the home of the École de Pont-Aven art movement. This movement was started by Gauguin and another artist he met there, Émile Bernard.


7. At The Moulin Rouge: The Dance By Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec

At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1889-1890, via The Philadelphia Museum of Art


This French painting is a window into the famous dance hall, The Moulin Rouge, in Paris around the time of its opening. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captures the moment as if he had a camera, peeking through the crowd to capture the dancers and the different figures standing about the large room. The use of pink and red hues encourages us to look further into the painting and study the individual attendees. In the middle of the dance floor, we see a famous dancer from the time teaching a woman a new dance move. This classic Parisian scene invites us to walk right into the famous dance painting and experience the Belle Époque (beautiful era) ourselves. The owner of the Moulin Rouge even had this painting hung above the bar. 


Famous Dance Paintings Of The 20th Century


8. The Dance By André Derain

The Dance by André Derain, 1906, in a Private Collection


The Dance is another French painting from the Fauvism movement. André Derain, like many Fauvist painters, was determined to paint his impression of a scene in the most powerful way he could, with strong, distorted forms in vibrant, eye-catching hues. It’s as if we view these dancers, who move through Derain’s dramatic jungle in carefree bliss with each other, through a pair of glasses that show the emotion rather than the stark reality. Their connection to each other and their environment is evident. The animals below their feet are not troubled by the dancers and even look as though they are part of the dance as well. 


Fauvist paintings commonly show elements of non-western art practices. This work exhibits characteristics of Asian motifs, with the progression of the dancers and the emphasis on expressing an emotion instead of focusing on creating a realistic representation. 


9. Dance By Henri Matisse

Dance by Henri Matisse, 1909-10, via The Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg 


Dance by Henri Matisse was commissioned by Sergey Shchukin, an influential Russian art collector who was one of Matisse’s greatest supporters. This famous dance painting is actually part of a pair of works, the other named Music, and they hang side by side in the Hermitage Museum. Rhythm is created between all the figures through their poses and their connection to each other, resembling folk dances. Matisse’s choice of color also emphasizes the connection between Earth, sky, and man. He strived to bring forward feelings that are deeply rooted, nearly unconscious, in a harmonious, soothing way.

10. Greek Dance In A Landscape By André Bauchant

Greek Dance in a Landscape by André Bauchant, 1937, via Tate, London


André Bauchant’s Greek Dance in a Landscape is very reminiscent of Corot’s painting above. Mythological figures dance with each other on a backdrop of nature. Bauchant’s painting is much lighter, with less darkness contrasting the vibrant, yet soft colors. The dancers’ loose clothing, flowing hair, and bare feet give the impression of a natural, carefree disposition. The simplicity is accented by their setting, a quiet landscape with its unspoiled beauty reaching as far as the eye can see. Like with many other famous dance paintings, each figure has their own role of who they are portraying at the dance. There are the tired men resting, a couple enjoying a dance alone, a synchronized dance between four women, and people watching from the edges of the clearing. 


Bauchant was inspired by mythology and classical painting styles. His expertise in mapmaking, which he did during World War I, and gardening, which he did before the war, are evident in his composure of the landscape these dancers appear in. Greek Dance in a Landscape was acquired by the Tate during World War II shortly after the artist finished the work.


Author Image

By Gabrielle ProbertBA French LiteratureI received a BA in French Literature from the University of Missouri, Kansas City. Art history has always been a passion of mine and I spent much of my time between my French studies taking every course I could. I’ve studied European, African, Asian, Mesoamerican, American, Ancient, and Contemporary art. I love to travel, meet new people, try new food and spend time with my family.