Bowing on stage with flowers in hand, a dancer is caught in a brief moment of her working life in Edgar Degas's drawing The End of the Arabesque.

Hanging on the wall of the Vancouver Art Gallery, this masterpiece is one of nearly 100 drawings on loan from the Musée d'Orsay of Paris in an exhibition called The Modern Woman that opened on Saturday.

"Many of these works have never been outside of France and the pastels have never travelled, period," curator Thomas Padon told

The landmark show is the first organized by the gallery from the Musée d'Orsay.

Featured artworks by renowned French artists, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edouard Manet, depict the daily life and increased independence of French women in society during the late 19th century.

"The subject is very interesting because this was a very dynamic period," Padon said.

"Women's lives were changing quite dramatically. No one really knew where this change was leading and there was a considerable amount of anxiety during that period."

Padon wanted to do a large-scale drawings exhibition and show the public works that are rarely seen because of their sensitivity to light and the limited space at the Paris museum.

"Though they're lesser known than (the museum's) paintings, sculpture and decorative arts collection, the drawings collection is really one of the best in the world," he said.

Isabelle Julia from the Musée d'Orsay partnered with the Vancouver Art Gallery and chose women as the exhibition's focal point.

"It's a good subject to show all the transformation of that part of the century in France and even in England," she said.

The drawings present women's private moments, their working lives and their newfound freedom in the public realm in what symbolized the new Paris, Julia explained.

They also represent a shift from a long-established formal academic convention to a more innovative and avant-garde approach to art.

"These artists really looked at daily life. These are not idealized figures. These are real people captured in very informal intimate moments," Padon said.

Dramatic social and economic growth at the time created a rising upper-middle class and some women began to enjoy the unprecedented privilege of walking outside and visiting cafés without a male escort.

Another significant change was the portrayal of the female nude.

Until the mid 19th century the male figure was the only one allowed to be used as a model. A nude or partially nude woman could only be shown within the confines of the studio.

"Here you have artists looking at women in the privacy of their bath, their boudoir," Padon said. "This was absolutely radical."

The Modern Woman exhibition will be on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery from June 5 to Sept. 6.