• U.S.

Art: Ballet Backstage

2 minute read

For half a century the towering ghost of Edgar Degas, famed 19th-Century French painter of ballerinas, has kept serious artists away from the subject of ballet dancers. But gifted Gladys Rockmore Davis, No. 1 U.S. woman painter of women, is not afraid of ghosts. Last week a display of her work appeared in LIFE. This week, in Manhattan’s Midtown Galleries, Painter Davis exhibited Ballet Backstage, 20 small, dramatically colored canvases conceived in the drafty wings and over-perfumed dressing rooms of the Metropolitan Opera House, during performances of the Ballet Theater Co.

Gladys Davis’ backstage scenes were dashing, sensuous records of ballet biography. Typical was Changing Costumes, a crowded dressing-room scene featuring ballerinas sprawled in narcissistic attitudes in a welter of make-up bottles, ribbons, slippers, mirrors, electric glares.

The Artist. Gladys Rockmore Davis, 43, is the ten-year wonder of U.S. art. It took her just that long to paint her way from a fashion illustrator to a top-flight easel painter with a reputation as “one of the very few American women artists who can paint a nude that does not resemble a Bonwit Teller manikin.”

The first thing that fascinated her about the ballet was the fierce contrast between the blazing light on the stage and the darkness in the flies and backstage. Often she sketched by a dim green light, sometimes she could not see what she was drawing at all. Between scenes she would dash up to the dressing rooms, sketch away furiously while the ballerinas changed costumes. One of her great disappointments is that she never got into the men’s dressing room.

She found ballet people “clean and magnificent-looking, intelligent and self-absorbed,” was surprised at the complete absence of the jealousy usual among theatrical people. She was fascinated by the way the airy dancers would bounce off the stage after a successful performance—”panting like truck drivers.” At such exciting moments Painter Davis often had her chair snatched from under her while she sketched.

When not watching the ballet, Painter Davis works five hours a day at her easel, sometimes seven days a week. She lives in a big apartment near the East River end of Manhattan’s 86th Street, with her husband, top-notch Magazine Illustrator (now War Correspondent) Floyd Davis, their two children and a dachshund named Nietzsche.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com