Dancers Backstage depicts an informal, behind-the-scenes moment at the ballet—the type of scene that most intrigued Degas. Four figures occupy the painting: a dancer who stands onstage with her back to the viewer and a group of three figures—two dancers and a man in black evening clothes—who stand just offstage behind a painted stage flat.
The interaction between the man and the dancer to his left is the fulcrum of the composition. The man’s attire marks him as an abonné, one of the wealthy male subscribers to the Paris Opéra. Accorded the privilege of backstage access, the abonnés often lurked in the wings while productions were under way and flirted with the young dancers. There can be no mistaking the man’s intentions toward the woman beside him. In response, the dancer has turned away, her stance—head tilted down and arms folded—suggesting indifference.
Given its modest scale and rapidly painted surface, Dancers Backstage may have been intended as a sketch for a larger work. No such work was ever executed, however, and it is equally possible that Degas considered this jewel-like painting fully realized. He showed it to great acclaim in 1881 at the sixth impressionist exhibition.