Degas retreated from the public eye in his later years, leaving many unanswered questions about his method and ambition during this time. But "one fact about which there is general agreement," Jean Sutherland Boggs has remarked, "is Degas' increasing indulgence in the abstract elements of his art. Color becomes more intense and often seems to dominate his paintings and pastels" (in Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, p. 481). The atomized surface of Danseuse au tambourin does indeed point in the direction of abstraction--specks of color circulate at times independently of the forms they describe--yet at each turn the paint leads us back to the artist himself, whose every small, rounded fingerprint leaves an autographic mark. The powerful tactility of Degas's late color, epitomized in this uncommonly brilliant surface, suggests a sensitive engagement both with his own, concurrent work in pastel and with the color theories of the early post-Impressionists.
"So characteristic was Degas's use of pastel," Richard Kendall has observed, "that entire displays of his work in the 1880s were given over to the medium and by 1891, if not before, it was rumoured that Degas's adoption of pastel had entailed a complete abandonment of oil paint" (in Degas: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 1996, p. 90). Degas himself admitted the primacy of the pastel technique in his late practice, explaining to the English painter Walter Sickert, "In oil painting, one should proceed as with pastel." Sickert added, by way of explanation, "He meant by the juxtaposition of pastes considered in their opacity" (ibid., p. 89 and 110). The translation of the pastel aesthetic--with its optical vibration of granular color in close juxtaposition, properties of mattness, and delicacy of surface--into Degas's painting practice would produce striking results. In Danseuse au tambourin, the shadowy background is energized by flickering dapples of color in tones ranging from dark bottle-green to carnation pink. The dancers become literally one with their environment, the decorative pattern of paint moving seamlessly from the figures into ambient space.
The mottled paint texture suggests a technical borrowing from medium of pastel, but its all-over effect approaches the contemporary practice of the Neo-Impressionists as well, to whom Degas may owe a more conceptual debt. His acquaintance with the generation of Seurat dates to the eighth Independent exhibition in 1886, at which Seurat's La Grande Jatte was first, and controversially shown with eight other of his works. "Though it has long been understood that Seurat, in his formative years, was indebted to Degas for some of his subject matter and graphic techniques," Kendall has noted, "the possibility of a reciprocal influence of certain other ideas, transmitted from the young man to the older in the manner of Seurat's impact on Pissarro, has hardly been considered" (ibid., p. 102). The intermediary was likely Pissarro, who by the beginning of November 1885 had already persuaded Degas and Morisot to accept Seurat and Signac for the following year's exhibition. Degas's "willingness to exhibit with Seurat and his friends, at a time when he was almost unbearably fastidious about such matters, and his documented association with several leading members of the divisionist camp," Kendall continues, suggest at least a tolerance, if not a lurking curiosity, for the new painting (ibid.). Danseuse au tambourin is a rare example of Degas's experimentation in this direction. Here, the artist's thumbprints confidently appropriate the pointillist dots, personalizing Seurat's more rationalized color in a new and subjective meditation on the danseuse, a long familiar theme.
(fig. 1) Georges Seurat, Le Chahut. Courtauld Institute Galleries, London. BARCODE 26015231