In Scène de ballet, Degas depicts not only the row of on-stage dancers in the background, but also the girls off-stage, stretching and chatting in the foreground. The artist sought to cover all aspects of the ballet, from the initial rehearsals and preparations through to the bright lights and thrilling spectacle of the final performance. The ballet became for Degas a lens through which he could experiment with light, color and movement, all the while observing and documenting the contemporary social milieu. Performances brought together the social classes, providing a cross section of society, and Degas depicted the drawn, tired faces of the dancers, who usually came from the most impoverished area of the city, alongside the affluent and predatory abonnés (season-ticket holders) who hung around backstage to proposition the girls.
As such, a behind-the-curtain image such as Scène de ballet shares something of the social commentary of Degas' earlier paintings of café culture and brothels which established his fame. But this similarity of subject belies the significant difference between this 1885 painting and those which went before. The mid-1880s was a crucial few years in Degas' development. Previously, the artist had been working in a tight, precise style founded on exquisite draftsmanship.
From around 1885, however, he developed a new style of which Scène de ballet is a prime example – looser, brighter, and more abstracted in form. Works such as Scène de ballet represent a turning point for Degas. The skirts, faces and bodies of the dancers are conjured from clouds of pigment, while the stage-set background is created using layer upon layer of paint applied directly with the artist's thumbs. We see, too, the beginnings of the bursting vibrancy – ultramarines, turquoises, russets, cardamom reds, roses pinks and flashes of brightest yellows – for which his late bathers and dancers were so celebrated. Only a year after Degas painted Scène de ballet, he took part in his final Impressionist group show, and began his withdrawal from the public art world. But his experimentation with the possibilities of color and form continued until his death in 1917, culminating in the staggeringly modern late works which 20th-century masters such as Picasso and Matisse found so inspiring.