The pastel picture by the famed French Impressionist shows a troupe of young performers sporting hair ribbons in vivid blue and yellow, the national colors of Ukraine.
A spokesperson for the National Gallery told the Guardian, “The title of this painting has been an ongoing point of discussion for many years and is covered in scholarly literature; however there has been increased focus on it over the past month due to the current situation so therefore we felt it was an appropriate moment to update the painting’s title to better reflect the subject of the painting.”
Critics have resurfaced allegations that many of the world’s biggest institutions have not properly contended with Ukrainian art amid Russian’s invasion of the country, which has claimed dozens of cultural landmarks.
Last month, historian Olesya Khromeychuk, the director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, wrote in the German magazine Der Spiegel, “Every trip to a gallery or museum in London with exhibits on art or cinema from the USSR reveals deliberate or just lazy misinterpretation of the region as one endless Russia; much like the current president of the Russian Federation would like to see it.
“In a rare occasion when a Ukrainian is not presented as Russian,” she continued, “he or she might be presented as ‘Ukrainian-born,’ as was the case with the film director, Oleksandr Dovzhenko, in one of the major exhibitions on revolutionary art in London.”
Two weeks ago, Tanya Kolotusha, a Ukrainian living in London, called out the National Gallery on Instagram for mislabeling Degas’ drawing, which was created around 1899 and acquired by the institution in 1998.
“Should we wait for Ukraine to win the war before starting a grand change on the cultural front,” Kolotusha wrote. The gallery responded a week later that the label had been updated.
Degas was obsessed with capturing the realities of 19th-century dancers in Paris, and over several decades created hundreds of drawings, paintings, and sculptures drawn from his studies. In contrast to his favorite subject of classical ballerinas, Ukrainian Dancers depicts one of the dance troupes from Eastern Europe that visited Paris in the late 1890s and performed at the French capital’s most famous venues, including the Moulin Rouge.
In the painting, the young women wear traditional Ukrainian folk dress and are shown in motion. One dancer’s foot descends in a fierce arc toward the grass beneath her; in her hands is a garland of blue and yellow flowers.