We are grateful to Professor Theodore Reff for his assistance in researching and dating the present work.
Danseuses à la barre is an historic highly finished pastel of ballet dancers by Edgar Degas, the long-acknowledged master of both the medium and the subject. This historic pastel dates from circa 1880, an important period of Degas' work and life during which he had consolidated his abilities, turning the pastels that had so fascinated him for half a decade to great effect on the dancers that had featured in his pictures for a decade. Danseuses à la barre is all the more historic because of its provenance: it was owned by Louisine Elder, the wife of H.O. Havemeyer. As a young woman, Louisine was the first American collector to introduce Degas' works to the United States. She and her husband subsequently assembled one of the world's greatest collections of his work-- the vast array of his pictures and sculptures now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York owes its existence largely to them. It is a tribute to the importance of Danseuses à la barre, both in personal and art historical terms, that it remained in Louisine's family until 1982.
The theme of the dancers had entered Degas' works almost incidentally, in his 1869 painting L'orchestre de l'Opéra. That picture, showing Degas' musician friends playing their instruments, featured dancers in the background, as though this group portrait were instead a snapshot taken during a performance of the ballet. In 1872, Degas returned to the theme of the ballet with another painting that was subsequently owned by the Havemeyers, Ballet de Robert le Diable. From that point onwards, though, he became increasingly interested in avoiding the grandeur of the spectacle of the ballet and the prima ballerina, and instead focussed on the minor players, on rehearsals, on the goings-on behind the scenes; on the occasions when he did show the action on the stage, he tended to do so from a strange angle. In Danseuses à la barre, the dancers are shown warming up, stretching their legs, holding them in the air, looking determinedly forward.
While some of his earlier pictures showing various aspects of the ballet were executed in oils, a confluence of events in the mid-1870s appears to have drawn him towards the pastels with which he is still so associated. In the 1988 catalogue for the Degas exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, it was pointed out that in 1875 Emile Gavet had sold a large collection of pastels by Millet. At the same time, there had been a wave of concern about the impermanence of oils, about their potential to change colour, as had happened in several of Manet's canvases. While some of these fears were doubtless exaggerated, this may nonetheless have encouraged Degas to explore a medium which at that point remained unfashionable, employed by few other than his own friend Giuseppe De Nittis, who may likewise have provided an impetus. Within a short time he had more than mastered the medium, with an incredible versatility and virtuosity, prompting Renoir to declare: 'When one sees his pastels!... To think that with a medium which is so unpleasant to handle, he has succeeded in rediscovering the tone of frescos' (Renoir, quoted in G. Adriani, Degas: Pastels, Oil Sketches, Drawings, London, 1985, p. 62). This mastery is all too evident in the precision with which Degas has captured the concentration of the dancer, the crinkle of the ribbon in her hair and the exquisite rendering of her outstretched hand.
Degas was drawn to the spontaneity of this dry medium, as well as to gouache, which dried so much faster than oil and which has been used in parts of Danseuses à la barre. However, as he was always at such pains to point out, this impression of speed of execution had little to do with the reality, which was studied and painstaking. 'I assure you that no art was ever less spontaneous than mine,' he protested. 'What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament-- temperament is the word-- I know nothing' (E. Degas, quoted in R. Kendall (ed.), Degas by himself: drawings prints paintings writings, London, 1987, p. 311). By the time that Danseuses à la barre was executed, his ballet scenes tended not to be executed from 'life,' be it in a rehearsal hall or the theatre, but instead in the artist's own studio. His correspondence also attests to an interest, even during this period, in photographs of the ballerinas, which he may also have used in order to create these images, which so deftly deceive the viewer and grant the sense of a single moment captured in time-- an impression. 'Drawing is not what one sees but what one can make others see,' Degas explained, clearly setting a boundary between himself and many of his fellow Impressionists (E. Degas, quoted in ibid., p. 319). He used artifice to give an understanding of the world, but did not need to be faced with its reality in order to render it. This, for Degas, was the role of the artist.
In search of such perfection, of such epitomical pictures showing the grace and beauty of this raw and unvarnished aspect of the life of the dancers, Degas would make his models stand for hours at a time in one pose, causing some of them to be profoundly upset by the rigours of a session. Yet the finished result always has a tension, a sense of movement, of the imminent change in the positions of the legs. This is clearly the case in Danseuses à la barre; and it was so true of a similar work, La leçon de danse (Lemoisne 450) which was owned by Pierre-Auguste Renoir before passing into the Havemeyer Collection and which is now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, that Renoir eventually sold it, unable to wait for the girl's leg to descend. Thus, despite working in the stillness of his studio, Degas was able to convey a sense of movement, the theme that intrigued him and that captured the modernity that so fascinated him. It was movement that had inspired many of his equestrian pictures, and this was no less the case with his ballet-themed works, as he himself explained: 'People call me the painter of dancing girls. It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes' (E. Degas, quoted in ibid., p. 306).
In his pastels, Degas reinforces that impression of movement, as the eye follows the swirling gestures of the artist himself, not least in the background areas that he has so vigorously filled with colour. The pastels and gouaches had another advantage for Degas, though: he was drawn to their relative opacity, which allowed him to cover mistakes and change compositions. It is interesting that in the upper right-hand corner there remains the ghost of an instruction from the artist to his framer, which has been half-erased by Degas, and deciphered by Professor Theodore Reff. The inscription reads: '1 c sur trois côtes pour la feuillere 51 66.' The latter numbers correspond with the measurements of the picture, while the rest is an instruction, advising a frame that covered a centimetre on three sides, while not on the fourth. Professor Reff has deduced that this fourth edge must be on the right-hand side, where a centimetre more of frame would make all the difference in the presentation of the second dancer, who has already been placed, within the composition, in a position of daring modernity that evokes snapshots and speaks of the spontaneous.
Degas' manipulation of the opacity of his media was clearly evident in La leçon de danse, formerly owned by Renoir. Inspections of that work, described in the 1988 catalogue for the Metropolitan Museum exhibition, revealed that the lone dancer, practising with the violinist in the foreground, originally had her leg in the same position as that shown in Danseuses à la barre, and also explored in several of Degas' studies from the period.
It is in part through comparisons of these two works that Professor Reff has ascribed Danseuses à la barre a date of execution of circa 1880. Whilst Lemoisne suggested a date of 1877-79, Reff considers this too early. He has noted that Gary Tinterow dates La leçon de danse to circa 1879: in this case, as well, Lemoisne's date of 1877-78 is too early. Tinterow has also observed the stylistical relationship between La leçon de danse and the pastel study of the violinist (Brame & Reff 99). This pastel has an inscribed date of 1880, proving Reff's suggestion of circa 1880 for Danseuses à la barre. On the contrary, Reff disagrees with the date of 1882-84, proposed by Lillian Browse for Danseuses à la barre: he believes Browse goes too far in the other direction. Her later dating, though reinforces the notion that Lemoisne's 1877-79 is too early.
This was an historic moment in Degas' career. For half a decade, he had had to sell his works. Art, which had begun as a hobby for a wealthy young man, had become a necessity, a livelihood. It was with his pictures of dancers that he achieved much of his success, and also, around this period, began to attract the favourable attention of a growing army of critics. His participation in the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition in 1879 (which in its own advertisements avoided reference to Impressionism, referring only to the Quatrième Exposition de peinture) elicited much praise, though his realism was considered so striking and uncanny that some critics voiced wonderment that he continued to associate with the Impressionists from whom he was so increasingly distant in terms of style and conception. In 1880, during the period that Danseuses à la barre was executed, the critic Jules Claretie was moved to enthuse:
'The ballet dancer deserved a special painter, in love with the white gauze of her skirts, with the silk of her tights, which the pink touch of her satin slippers, their soles powdered with resin. There is one artist of exceptional talent whose exacting eye has captured on canvas or translated into pastel or watercolour-- and even, on occasion, sculpted-- the seductive bizarreries of such a world. It is Monsieur Degas, who deals with the subject as a master, and knows precisely how a ribbon is tied on a dancer's skirt, the wrinkle of the tights over the instep, the tension the silk gives to ankle tendons' (J. Claretie, quoted in R. Gordon & A. Forge, Degas, London, 1988, p. 183).
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Danseuses à la barre. It is telling, then, that during the same year, Joris Karl Huysmans celebrated Degas as, 'the painter of modern life... who is indebted to nobody but himself, who is unlike anyone else, who has produced something entirely new, a technique which belongs to him alone' (J.K. Huysmans, quoted in Adriani, op.cit., 1985, p. 75).
As well as critical praise, Degas was increasing the number of buyers interested in his work, a source of some relief to him during this period of dire financial straits. Amongst these was Louisine Elder. During a family trip to Paris, she had struck up a friendship with a fellow American, Mary Cassatt, and it was under her influence that Louisine made her first purchase of a picture by Degas, aged only twenty years of age, having had to scrape together the funds by borrowing her sisters' pocket money, assembling the 500 francs that she needed to purchase the first Degas to be publicly exhibited in the United States, Répétition de ballet, now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. Degas had been a revelation to Cassatt, who had become one of the most admired of the female Impressionists and a long-term friend of Degas'; his work was now to become all-important to Louisine too. Recalling that first purchase, Louisine would recall,
'It was so new and strange to me! I scarcely knew how to appreciate it, or whether I liked it or not, for I believed it takes special brain cells to understand Degas. There was nothing the matter with Miss Cassatt's brain cells, however, and she left me in no doubt as to the desirability of the purchase and I bought it on her advice' (L. Havemeyer, quoted in F. Weitzenhoffer, The Havemeyers: Impressionism Comes to America, New York, 1986, p. 21).
As she would later recall, she also found out that Degas himself had appreciated the purchase and the income that it had brought him. After her marriage, Louisine's budget increased, and she and her husband set about assembling their historic collection. While many of their pictures have been donated to museums in the United States, Danseuses à la barre remained in the hands of their descendants, passing from mother to daughter over three generations, until its sale at auction in 1982 for a phenominal price by the estate of Louisine Havemeyer's granddaughter.