No other artist has so brilliantly brought the world of the ballet to life through his art than Edgar Degas. His life-long fascination with the subject led him to create countless studies and finished works of dancers at rest or in motion, both on and off-stage in a variety of media. The ever-changing character of ballet as a form of physical expression paralleled Degas' own artistic experiments, particularly his obsession of capturing the human body from every conceivable angle and level. As one scholar explained, Degas "used that art [of ballet] for the exploration of his own" (L. Browse, Degas Dancers, London, 1949, p. 46). Degas executed few sketches and paintings of actual performances and the more polished movements of dancers sur la scene. The major body of his work explores the life of the dancer off-stage, in the practice studio or at rest, and demonstrates how Degas preferred to capture the spontaneity and the chance happenings of the backstage world. As Lillian Browse has observed, "for the painter who desired to peep through the keyhole, who loved the 'accidental,' it was all ideal" (ibid., p. 52).
The present work is one of a handful of charcoal studies and pastel drawings related to the painting in the E.G. Bührle Collection, Danseuse au foyer (fig. 1; Lemoisne no. 996). The oil, with its rich colors and expressive brushwork comes from an interesting period in the artist’s oeuvre, between the late 1870s and the turn of the century, when Degas worked in a distinctive format that is more than twice as wide as it is high, thus creating a panoramic view of the wide rooms in which the dancers would rehearse. La leçon de danse (Lemoisne no. 625) is considered to be the earliest example of this compositional style, wherein Degas strategically placed the dancers across the broad expanse of the space, positioning them in such a way as to create an inherent rhythm on the page: “as our eyes sweep the composition from side to side, then back again, we instinctively follow the procession of forms and intervals that give the picture its understated life” (R. Kendall and J. Devonyar, Degas and the Ballet, Picturing Movement, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2011, p. 95).
Broadly and rapidly executed in charcoal with the immediacy of a snapshot, the present drawing depicts each of the dancers busily adjusting themselves before class begins. The central figure possesses the most expressive development of line, enabling Degas to evoke a sense of her bodily volume. In contrast, the bending figure on the left is outlined with firmly stated contours that draw the eye to the door in the corner, left slightly ajar. These strong attributes of the drawing are echoed in the painting, reflecting Degas’ incredibly modern approach to his technique: “Especially instructive here is the richly worked surface of the painting itself, evoking the way in which Degas’s brushes have been used not merely to establish areas of color but also to ‘draw’ hundreds of fine, dark strokes both under and over his swathes of golds, ochres and greens” (ibid., p. 119). This beautifully demonstrates the ease in which Degas could traverse from drawing to painting then back again.
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Danseuse au foyer, circa 1889. Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection, Zurich.
(backup fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Exercices de danse, circa 1889. Toledo Museum of Art.