While forging the Impressionist movement — a style considered shocking in its contemporary moment — Edgar Degas, best known for his compositions of Paris Opera Ballet dancers, was a devotee of the classical form. When asked by his great patron Louisine Havemeyer, in 1903, what brought about his fascination with dance, the master responded, ‘Because, Madame, it is all that is left us of the combined movements of the Greeks.’
But perhaps what 19th-century eyes found so shocking in Degas’s depiction of human achievement is what he found most beautiful: the work required by the dancers themselves to actualise the image of the ideal.
‘He was an artist who liked to observe behind the scenes,’ says Vanessa Fusco, a specialist in Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s New York. Trois danseuses, a 25-by-20-inch pastel created in 1900, is offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on 14 May. This late work offers a highly Impressionistic depiction of ballerinas preparing to go onstage: ‘It’s a splendid example of his later pieces for the vibrancy of colour and the poetic way he intertwines the dancers’ bodies,’ says Fusco.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Trois danseuses, circa 1900. Pastel on joined paper laid down on board. 25 3/8 x 20 3/8 in. (64.5 x 51.7 cm.) Estimate: $6,000,000-8,000,000. This work is offered in our Impressionist and Modern evening Sale including Property from the John C Whitehead Collection, Christie’s New York 14 May
Also being offered in the department’s Works on Paper sale on May 15 is Danseuse au repos, 1885. ‘With bursts of colour appearing in singular aspects of the composition, small amounts of pigment perfectly capture details such as the shimmering pink of the toe shoe,’ says Fusco. ‘It’s masterfully done.’ Coming from a private New York collection, which has held it for the last 66 years, this fresh-to-the-market masterwork epitomises Degas’s dance project, which holds fascination not only for scholars and collectors, but scores of museum-goers, not to mention dancers themselves. Here, six stars of the contemporary dance scene, whose personal experiences inform their viewing, discuss what they see beyond the surface of these stunning works by Degas.
Lauren BonfiglioCorps de Ballet, American Ballet Theatre
‘My perspective of Degas’s works has definitely changed from when I was a young dancer to now as a professional,’ says Bonfiglio, a New Jersey native who became familiar with the artist’s work during trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and gazed at reproductions printed on personal effects. In her formative years, Bonfiglio, focused on ‘the lush tutus, the pointe shoes, the studio, the stage, and the lovely brushstroke colours in the paintings.’ Now, she says, she sees ‘what my profession was like in the 19th century. Noticing how the heads, torsos, arms, hands, legs, and feet were held and placed tells me a lot about the history and evolution of ballet technique throughout the years.’ Beyond getting insight into pieces she performs with ABT today, Bonfiglio is impressed by Degas’s artistic virtuosity, how he ‘was able to create a stunning scene while dancers were constantly in motion.’ Fusco of Christie’s attributes this to the medium of pastel, which ‘affords an immediacy that oil paint does not,’ allowing the artist to ‘to observe and capture his subjects with real rapidity.’
Image: Lauren Bonfiglio © Photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Danseuse au repos, 1885. Pastel and charcoal on grey paper. 26 1/8 x 20 in. (66.4 x 50.6 cm.) Estimate: $400,000-600,000. This work is offered in Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper, including the Property from the John C Whitehead Collection, Christie’s New York 15 May
Company member, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Jakel fell in love with ballet the moment she started taking class just before her fourth birthday. ‘As many dancers will tell you, from the second they announce the decision to become a ballerina, they are pretty much showered with images of Degas.’ Living in Detroit, however, Jakel had access to many of the artist’s actual works at the Detroit Institute of Art. She was taken by the museum’s 2002 presentation of Degas and the Dance, an exhibition of 100 pieces. ‘It was the first time I was able to take in his use of line and colour,’ she says. ‘Seeing image after image, I was struck by the way he uses the dancer in their pure form.’ As Fusco attests, ‘What is often seen is ballerinas stretching or bending over to fix a shoe, in awkward positions that are very unballetic.’ With Impressionism’s ‘soft gaze’ Jakel sees ‘almost a dance in the way the line and colour move that is so powerful and beautiful,’ before adding, ‘dance fans are drawn to our form because of the beauty of movement; similarly Degas captures that movement not only pictorially but also within the making of the image.’
Image: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Megan Jakel © Photo by Andrew Eccles
Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Position de quatrième devant sur la jambe gauche, circa 1885-1890. This bronze version was cast between 1919-1921 in an edition numbered A to T. Height: 23 ¼ in. (59 cm.) Estimate: $700,000-1,000,000. This work is offered in our Impressionist and Modern evening Sale including Property from the John C Whitehead Collection, Christie’s New York 14 May
Principal, Martha Graham Dance Company
As a 10-year-old whose commitment to dance was tenuous, Knight’s first encounter with Degas was a published reproduction of the costumed bronze La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, 1881, arguably the artist’s best known work. ‘I found the image so beautiful, so inspiring. I wondered what she was thinking, what exactly was happening that made Degas capture that moment,’ says the dancer who has partnered with fellow stars Wendy Whelan and Misty Copeland. That search for truth continues to inform his views of the artist’s work: ‘He’s an Impressionist, but I see him as a realist painter. I look at any composition and relate to what’s happening.’ In the 30 years the artist chronicled dance, he hit on moments that transcend time. ‘The scenes Degas captured are moments that still happen today,’ Knight confirms. ‘The costumes change and the steps might be different, but dance is dance. It’s universal.’
Image: Lloyd Knight © Ken Browar and Deborah Ory of NYC Dance Project
Principal, New York City Ballet
In addition to a formidable career in ballet, Peck’s resume includes movies and films — ‘but dance is at the centre of everything I’ve done,’ she says reassuringly. Of her extra-curricular work, the most recent project was choreographer Susan Stroman’s Little Dancer, a musical about Marie van Goethem, the 14-year-old model for La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, which premiered at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center last fall. ‘It was a real roller coaster to play her character because she emerged from a pretty destitute background — one in which the options for women in need of work was doing domestic labour or turning to prostitution — to being part of the Paris Opera Ballet,’ she explains.
By most accounts, Goethem was dismissed from the ballet after La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans debuted to mixed reviews. ‘It’s not known what happened to her, but the sculpture seemed to have destroyed her,’ says Peck. It’s a window into the dark realities the compositions reveal. ‘Everyone thinks of ballet as an expression of a beautiful, untouchable aesthetic, but the work of Degas reveals the imperfections,’ she says. Describing the sculpture’s pose at rest, near fourth position, ‘with a pooch in her stomach was much of the reason for criticism of the sculpture. But to a dancer, that is beautiful because it shows the positions we all fall into when we’re not onstage. He’s not interested in a dancer executing the perfect jete. It shows the humanness of us all. We’re not idealised images.’
Image: Tiler Peck © Photo by Paul Kolnik
Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Danseuse à la barre. Pastel and charcoal on paper.
12 ½ x 9 3/8 in. (31.7 x 24 cm.) Estimate: $70,000-100,000. This work is offered in Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper, including the Property from the John C Whitehead Collection, Christie’s New York 15 May
Former Principal, New York City Ballet
Whelan, lauded for her artistic virtuosity as well as her longevity — despite retiring from NYCB at 47, she is currently touring in Restless Creature, a performance of four dances created especially for her — also sees the darker side of dance and it’s history in the works of Degas. ‘I see the deep back story of ballet, which tells the story of a paternal, somewhat aristocratic ownership — and love — of the idealised young woman. There’s some real truth about ballet not just being a perfect world,’ she says. ‘That patriarchy is slowly fading, and women are more empowered, but that history is still very relevant and very active.’
Image: Wendy Whelan © Nisian Hughes
Executive and Artistic Director of Jacob’s Pillow
‘Trois Danseuses seems a culmination of Degas’s life-long passion for dance. It fully expresses the vitality, colour, elegance, and intimacy of his favorite subject,’ says the director of America’s longest-running dance festival. Like the artist, Baff is a keen observer of dancers in their milieu. Jacob’s Pillow hosts over 50 dance companies from across the globe each summer at its theatres in Western Massachusetts. During her tenure with the festival, Baff has accepted the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama on behalf of the organisation. ‘We are invited into the world [Degas] loves and can relish a few moments backstage with the dancers,’ she says. ‘How wonderful that Trois Danseuses is dancing its way onto a new ‘stage’ with this auction.’
Image: Ella Baff
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