Professor Theodore Reff has stated that in his opinion this drawing is by Edgar Degas, and has a titled it more appropriately Trois danseuses nues, les bras levés. We thank him for kindly providing some of the information used in the following note.
The present work explores Degas' most famous and favoured theme, the dancer. Stylistically typical of the artist's graphic works from the late 1890s, this drawing is a study for a series of pastels of three dancers turned to the left with their arms raised (Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Paris, vol. III, nos. 1336-1339 and 1389). Stylistic similarities are evident in other studies for these pastels, notably from the third studio sale, lots 149-2, 208-2, 273, 285 and 379, and lot 350 from the fourth studio sale. Professor Reff has pointed out that this latter appears to be a counterproof of the present drawing, made before the narrow strip of paper was added at the right and perhaps before the third dancer was fully realised.
In the present drawing, Degas has combined his incredible observational skills, through which he has captured the posture, balance and musculature of the dancers as they pose, with a certain timeless classicism. While, on one hand, these dancers are shown in a balletic pose, they also resemble processional figures from ancient Roman sculptures, their arms raised in praise, or even the Three Graces themselves. When it was illustrated and offered in the second of the celebrated atelier sales of works from Degas' studio, the year after his death, this picture was given the title Trois danseuses en maillot, les bras levés, however, as Professor Reff suggests, a more accurate title is Trois danseuses nues, les bras levés.
Degas was a master of many media, as is demonstrated in his deft use of charcoal in Trois danseuses. Here, there is a great sense of spontaneity of execution giving the sense of a fleeting moment of movement being captured rapidly by a master. The charcoal also increases the senses of immediacy and intimacy of the picture. However, Degas was at pains to point out that his pictures were in fact the result of careful observation and his own erudite knowledge of his artistic predecessors. Often, rather than going to the ballet or to practise sessions, Degas would employ models in his studio, asking them to adopt single poses sometimes for long periods of time. Adding to the sense of informality, he would often illustrate exercises and rehearsals rather than the formalised positions. The illusion of ephemeral movements being captured as though in a snapshot was precisely what Degas sought, but he engineered it through great efforts on his part, as is demonstrated in the comparison of these seemingly unclothed figures and those in the Danseuses roses (Lemoisne no. 1337, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). 'I assure you that no art was ever less spontaneous than mine,' he stated. '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' (Degas, quoted in ibid., p. 311).