At the turn of the 20th century, after three decades, the dance still reigned supreme in Degas’s art–it remained his favorite subject and in the public regard stood fast as his signature theme. This was the ground in which he had cultivated much of his art, and here it continued to evolve and flourish. For Degas, the dancer–not the nude, as most other artists would claim–took pride of place as the apotheosis of the human figure. The Trois danseuses offered here is a sterling affirmation of the profound commitment Degas had accorded this theme during his lifetime, and a vigorous display of the grandeur, the splendor, and sumptuousness with which he enriched his late art.
Degas by 1900 had arrived in his work at a distillation of pictorial means that presaged the art of the new century to come. When comparing the present pastel and others of Degas’s late period with those of previous decades, one instantly observes that the artist has largely dispensed with his early penchant for specificity and detail. He attained instead a lyrical expression of rhythmical form that verged on abstraction. Color became for Degas the revelation of pure, prismatic essence, surpassing anything to be found in Impressionism at that date; with his pastel sticks in hand, he was drawing as if with light itself. “In addition, the very texture of Degas’s work seems an immediate expression of the will of the man himself,” Joan Sutherland Boggs has noted. “In his interest in and reliance on abstraction, there is a willfulness and a turning to what Degas himself described as ‘mystery’ in art” (Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, pp. 481-482).
Delving into this “mysterious” place, Degas transfigured the dance into a visionary conception of form and color that became his primary impetus during the final phase of his career. And it is for this late work that Degas has been increasingly acclaimed; surely, this is a great late style to be honored alongside the classic canon which includes–among the moderns–Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, and–as we have come to more clearly understand in recent years–late Picasso as well.
The lure of the dance for Degas ultimately lay in the distant past. In 1903, Louisine Havemeyer, who had already acquired more than a dozen of Degas’s ballet pastels and drawings, visited the artist in his studio, to enquire about purchasing the sculpture Petite danseuse de quatorze ans. She later recounted part of her conversation with the artist: “I asked Degas the question–I blush to record it–a question that had often been asked me: ‘Why, Monsieur Degas, do you always do ballet dancers?’ The quick reply was: ‘Because, madame, it is all that is left us of the combined movements of the Greeks.’ It was so kindly said, I felt he forgave me the silly question and for not understanding him better” (Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector, New York, 1961, p. 256).
Degas was stating in his response, as Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall have explained, “the association of his ballet subjects with the serene and timeless values of classical civilization” (Degas and the Dance, exh. cat., American Federation of the Arts, 2002, p. 235). Jeanne Fevre, the artist’s niece, reported that Degas read the Greek classics in the original; he was “passionate about the world of antiquity.” The writer Henri Hertz reported Degas to have stated that his dancers “followed the Greek tradition purely and simply, almost all antique statues representing the movement and balance of rhythmic dance.” Paul Gsell, a friend of Degas and Rodin, and a writer on sculpture at the turn of the 20th century, compared the “last groups of dancers executed in pastel” to ancient “bas-reliefs” (ibid., p. 238).
“The Dance generates a whole plastic world,” Paul Valéry observed in the work of Degas, with whom he became friendly during the mid-1890s. “Out of the forming, dissolving and re-forming patterns created by the same set of limbs, out of movements that echo each other at equal or harmonious intervals, comes decoration in time, just as the spatial repetition of motifs, or their symmetry, gives rise to decoration in space” (Degas Dance Drawing, Princeton, 1960, p. 16)
These ideas reflected Degas’s own deepening philosophical and historical understanding of dance in antiquity. A frequent visitor to the Louvre, Degas was especially drawn to the painting and sculpture in the classical galleries, where he studied the figures on Attic vases just as intently as the Vénus de Milo, the fragment Les trois Grâces, and the marble relief panels from the Temple of Artemis in the ancient city of Magnesia. Standing before the famous Vénus, he remarked to his friend Georges Jeanniot, “The Greek sculptor gave this figure a splendid movement, while retaining the calm that characterizes masterpieces” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 244).
In these museum artifacts, as well as those dancers Degas had been modeling in wax since he completed Petite danseuse de quatorze ans in 1880, the artist found compelling inspiration for the expressive pose, in which movement is frozen in time, instilling that sense of harmony and serenity which is a quintessential feature of the classical demeanor in the arts. These sources became especially relevant for Degas as he studied and experimented with the integration of the individual pose within an ensemble design when composing multi-figure scenes. From the temple friezes he derived ideas for the progression of individual poses set in sequence, in which each gesture of an arm and the positioning of a leg act in counterpoint to all the others. Degas turned increasingly during the late 1880s and early 1890s to these sources as his primary models for creating dance compositions, relying far less than previously, and then finally hardly at all, on attendance at actual rehearsals and performances.
In addition to painting, drawing and sculpting his models, Degas was also making photographs of dancers. Although he had acquired a hand-held Kodak which used rolled film, he preferred the older method of employing glass plates and a tripod. Three such collodion glass plates, the product of a method long outmoded when Degas is believed to have created them during the mid-1890s, are his only surviving photographic images of dancers. The instantaneity of the snapshot did not interest him; instead he took care to pose his sitters, as if he were closely observing them in preparation for a drawing.
Joan Sutherland Boggs has observed in Degas’s photographs “a sense of physical beauty that may be elusive but is also lingering” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 536). The artist’s fascination with the antitheses of stasis and movement, the permanent and the fleeting, is also apparent in the series of sonnets that he wrote at this time about dancers, often alluding to classical mythology and antique dance. Degas in these verses reveals his belief that the beauty in dance is the individual’s enactment, within a passing temporal and spatial context, of idealized forms, which are essentially unchanging and timeless, as in a ritual. “Those who grasp the mystery of bodies moving, eloquent and still,” Degas wrote, “must see in the fleeting girls all trace vanish of their transitory soul” (trans. R. Howard, in R. Gordon and A. Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, p. 201).
By this late stage in his career, Degas had come to rely upon the veritable catalogue of visual memories and ideas he had accumulated over the years, and he could also refer to an extensive body of prior work, much of which was always close at hand, to serve as the basis for further exploration of the ballet theme. With these resources, plus the aid of only one or two models, together with a few props, Degas could easily simulate in his studio the atmosphere and conditions of the practice rooms. “If his creativity became somewhat more hermetic,” DeVonyar and Kendall have written, “it lost none of his intensity and may have even been liberated from what remained of the social documentary project of the early Impressionist years” (Degas and the Ballet, exh. cat., Royal Academy of the Arts, London, 2011, p. 214).
The finest dance pastels Degas created at the turn of the century employ three or four figures in concerted arrangements. The dancers interact in close proximity with each other; viewed close-up, they usually fill the sheet. He often depicted such figures only to waist length, concentrating on the gestures of their arms. The composition of the present pastel is full-figure, a treatment which induced Degas to exploit the side-to-side sway of the two shimmering yellow tulle skirts, and to draw attention to the serpentine filigree of the dancers’ arms and backs. We do not know if these three dancers held any symbolic connotation for the artist; one is tempted, nevertheless, to relate them to Les trois Grâces Degas liked to study in the Louvre.
Typical of the serial method that Degas employed in his late works, the present group of Trois danseuses is the outcome of what the artist termed a “series of operations” (quoted in op. cit., 1960, p. 6). This triadic arrangement appears to stem from a pastel done two years earlier (Lemoisne, no. 1322). The group of related works to which the present pastel belongs, drawn circa 1900, comprises Lemoisne nos. 1371-1379, three of which are half-length in a horizontal format. The locus of variation in these versions is most noticeable in the left-hand figure, whose head is turned toward the viewer in nos. 1371-1376; in the present Trois danseuses (no. 1377) and in the esquisse (no. 1378), she shows her back instead. The latter drawing does not appear to have been preparatory for the present pastel, and is possibly a variant Degas considered for subsequent development of this three dancers group.
Among the nine sheets in the Trois danseuses series, Degas chose to elaborate and fully enhance with color Lemoisne nos. 1371, 1372, 1375 and lastly the present pastel, which is arguably the most compactly articulated of these related compositions. Once Degas had arrived at a configuration whose contours and rhythms he deemed successful, he traced the figures a final time, and then had Père Lézin, a print specialist, framer and colleur, lay down the thin sheet of tracing paper on durable Bristol board. The artist avoided working on fine rag, hand-made and specially textured papers that pastelists normally preferred to use. Proceeding to work this drawing in pastel, Degas first applied the powdery pigment in broad strokes using the side of the stick, then utilized the tip to create a fine, uni-directional array of colored lines he called his “zébrures” ("stripes"), resulting in a densely striated colored area. “I am a colorist with line,” Degas proclaimed (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2002, p. 257). He frequently applied a fixative as he progressed, made from an unknown recipe the painter Luigi Chialiva had given him, to render each layer of pastel permanent, and allow for further applications and the progressive build-up of this medium into a richly worked field of mingled tints.
Like the glass plate illustrated here, this Trois danseuses is remarkable for its fiery tonality of yellow and red, which Degas moderated with cool blue tones in the fore- and backgrounds, and pink flesh tints in the dancers’ bare backs and arms. “His pastels became fireworks,” John Rewald wrote, “where all precision of form disappeared in favor of a texture that glittered with hatchings” (The History of Impressionism, New York, 1973, p. 566). “Pastel invites flamboyance,” Kendall has written. “In pastel, Degas found a medium that propelled him towards extravagance” (Degas: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1996, p. 89).
For most of Degas’s life, his art had been classically measured, disinclined–as was the man himself–to excess in any way. In his late work, however, this disciplined master of his craft became increasingly attracted to, as if possessed by, a spirit of exuberant sensation. In a conversation with Julie Manet in 1899, Degas referred to the Russian Dancer he was then working on as an “orgy of color” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 581). When Degas drew this Trois danseuses, the explosive color of the Fauves–those “wild beasts” of painters who would turn the Parisian art world on end–was only a few years in the offing. Matisse completed his ecstatic Danse (I) and (II) in 1909-1910. In his will to forge an expressivity to a degree not previously seen in his art, Degas in his late years created a vital body of work that made him as much a prescient artist for the new century as he had once been a steadfast chronicler of the old.
Photograph attributed to René de Gas, Edgar Degas in His Library, circa 1900. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
Edgar Degas, Danseuse, circa 1896. Modern print from the original glass collodion plate. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
Edgar Degas, Trois danseuses, 1898. Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen.
Edgar Degas, Groupe de danseuses, circa 1900. Culture and Sport Glasgow.
Edgar Degas, Trois danseuses (jupes bleues, corsages rouges), circa 1903. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel.
Edgar Degas, Trois danseuses, circa 1900. Sold, Christie’s, New York, 7 May 2002, lot 8.
Edgar Degas, Danseuses, circa 1898. Fondation de l’Hermitage, Lausanne.
Henri Matisse, La danse (I), 1909. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.