Young Spartans Exercising
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You already know Edgar Degas had a fondness for naked ladies in bathtubs but did you also know that he, on a rare occasion, depicted naked dudes?

Most people associate Degas with framed posters of pink and blue ballerinas that decorate the dentist’s office. Art enthusiasts think of a creepy, voyeuristic artistic genius who obsessively sculpted and painted the female form. But probably no one thinks of a painting  likeYoung Spartans Exercising. It’s not set in Paris. It’s not even set during the Victorian Era.  And it, astonishingly, features a naked man. Well, not one man but five.

This is shocking because, although he liked his women bare, Degas didn’t usually depict men donning their birth suits. (If you’re reading this and rolling your eyes in feminist disgust, don’t. I know you watch Game of Thrones.) Degas painted this historical work around 1860 when he was about 26 (which just makes every millennial look lazy), following his time in Naples, Italy. The picture depicts life in the classical Greek state of Sparta, aka Lululemon, a military city-state where both men and women had to partake in athletic sport. Other, perhaps older, members of Spartan society idly observe the separated youths like middle-school moms at a 7th grade dance.

But these 7th graders are not your average nervously-shifting tweens. Let’s first take a look at the ladies. Interestingly, the women, not the men, exhibit more authority. In fact, these partially clothed femme fatales appear to be singing the lyrics of Blurred Lines to the completely stripped lads, taunting them and gesturing flirtatiously in their direction. (An old fart professor would tell us that they are in actuality competitive athletes challenging each other but we all know what’s really going on here.) The men are clearly turned on; just look at the blonde on all fours who looks like a model for Allen Jones! Although Degas presents male and female as equally desirable and strong, the men seem objectified, posing and strutting as if they are trying to get a bouncer to let them in the nightclub. In Degas’s Sparta, women are not only sexually equal citizens but dominating ones. Have you seen this artwork, Kanye? You should.

But how could this be the work of Degas, the artist responsible for Interior and the one who said he had "perhaps too often considered woman as an animal?” Maybe Degas was also shocked by his own modernism. He kept Young Spartans Exercising for the rest of life, continually adding and taking away from it (Did you notice that the four women have ten legs between them?!) and he never sold it nor displayed it to the public. In fact, it remained hidden in his studio until his death in 1917. We will never know why.



  1. Jones, Jonathan. “Through a Keyhole” The Guardian. October 2004. 4 December 2016.
  2. The National Gallery. Young Spartans Exercising. 4 December 2016.
  3. About Edgar Degas. 4 December 2016.
  4. The Art Institute of Chicago. Young Spartan Girls Challenging Boys. 4 December 2016.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Young Spartans Exercising

Young Spartans Exercising, also known as Young Spartans and also as Young Spartan Girls Challenging Boys, is an early oil on canvas painting by French impressionist artist Edgar Degas. The work depicts two groups of male and female Spartan youth exercising and challenging each other in some way. The work is now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery in London.


The painting depicts as its subject matter two groups of older children, four girls and five boys, with the girls apparently taunting or beckoning the boys. The girls are positioned to the left of the painting, the boys to the right, while in-between the two groups in the background appear a third group watching them; their appearance striking as they are fully dressed while the youth in the foreground stand naked or topless. Behind the onlookers, identified as Lycurgus and the mothers of the children, lies the city of Sparta, dominated by Mount Taygetus, from which the bodies of the society's "unfit" children were supposedly thrown into a ravine, to die from trauma or exposure.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Young Spartans Exercising.