Picturing Dance in Eighteenth-Century England

Why are there so few pictures of professional dancers in England during this period? Compared to images of actors, the numbers are tiny, whether the mode be private portrait (such as Gaetan and Auguste Vestris by Gainsborough), character piece (Hester Santlow as a Harlequin Woman by Ellys), or satiric attack (like some representations of Mlle Parisot). Dancers were constantly employed by theatre and opera companies throughout the century, yet they are under-represented by artists.

This paper will outline some of the market forces at work in the art and book-selling worlds that affected the preservation of images of dance and dancers. Portraits cost so much that they were simply beyond the purses of most dancers (and if of the private individual, rather than of the dance persona, would be of limited utility to historians of dance anyway). Prints and book illustrations were accessible to a broad range of purchasers, though even here, prices need careful examination. A single exemplum might be within reach, but repeated purchases were out of the question for many people. Purveyors needed to be very aware of their market to sustain healthy businesses. In terms of generation of images, questions arise about who initiated work and about the conventions by which dancers were shown dancing, which did not develop as much variety as they might have. The more figures in a scene, and the more fully they were rendered, the more a painting, drawing, or print was likely to cost. Yet to evoke dance motions with a single subject is difficult. Many artists settled for a figure with one foot off the ground, sometimes without a very realistic rendering of the counterpoise of the rest of the body. Such conventions offered little challenge to artists, and few appear to have taken up the issue seriously. In terms of market share, theatrical performers were never a large part of what print-sellers offered collectors: other subjects engaged far more of artists’ time. Images of well-known or promising new actors could be sold as frontispieces to play series, but no regular publication vehicle existed with which to associate pictures of dancers. As a category, satire might generate amusing single pieces, but usually engaged dance as a means of targeting another subject, rather than for its own sake. While individual examples can be enlightening, the focus of satires collectively is seldom dancers or dance. An overview of the evidence suggests that dance was regarded as not sufficiently saleable to be worth the effort to portray extensively.

Judith Milhous
Symposium Title: 
Dance and Image – 2009
Author affiliation: 
City University of New York