There are in the pantheon of the great moderns a few artists who lived to an advanced age, whom we hold in high esteem for an accomplishment that is uncommon and profoundly revelatory: their lives' work culminated in an utterly transformed and unprecedented art, whose pronounced characteristics may be perceived to constitute a uniquely distinctive "late style." This late body of work may be so exceptional and forward-looking that it may eventually be understood to constitute a defining moment, a benchmark "state of the art," in the history of modernism. Among the artists of the last century, we especially admire Matisse for the innovation and sheer élan of his cut-outs (see Lot ___), and Picasso, for those irrepressible, life-affirming paintings of his final years, the mosqueteros, which drew huge crowds at the Gagosian Gallery, New York, this past spring. Among the giants of the late 19th century, Cézanne arrived at a late style: his bathers and landscapes bespeak ideas and trends that were to thread their way through successive generations of modern painters down to our own day. Monet's late nymphéas paintings represent the transubstantiation of Impressionism into a vision and experience of the physical world that crosses the threshold into a virtually cosmic and timeless dimension.
In this select group of artists we should rightly include Edgar Degas. Observers had noted early on the presence of a late style in his work; in discussing an exhibition of late works in 1936, Waldemar George was struck by "His tones--false, strident, clashing, breaking into shimmering fanfares without any concern for truth, plausibility, or credibility" (quoted in Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, p. 482). A wider appreciation and deepening understanding of Degas's late style began to emerge within the context of the massive 1988 retrospective of his work. It was not until 1996, however, nearly eighty years after the artist's death, that a thorough and definitive accounting of his late work was finally undertaken, in Degas: Beyond Impressionism, curated by Richard Kendall.
Degas drew Danseuses circa 1896; it is around this time that most commentators mark the emergence of this final phase in his work, which lasted until the artist's eyesight had so seriously deteriorated that he could no longer paint, draw or sculpt in his studio, around 1912. This issue of the artist's visual capacity has limited bearing in the mid-90s, but it is nonetheless a reminder of a significant factor that comes into play in the late work of many elder masters: increasing infirmities of various kinds, as well as the growing apprehension of one's mortality, may contribute immeasurably to the challenge of the task at hand, and require from the artist the ultimate measure of courage and the strength of will to carry on, all factors which will inform to some degree the emotional content as well as the appearance of the artist's production.
When comparing the present pastel to works done in previous decades, one instantly observes that Degas has largely dispensed with his early penchant for specificity and detail, now seemingly dissolved in the boldness of his drawing and the sheer brilliance of color, as the artist strove to distill his subject down to its very essence. Joan Sutherland Boggs has noted, "One fact about which there is general agreement by writers on the late work is Degas's increasing indulgence in the abstract elements of his art. Color becomes more intense and often seems to dominate his paintings and pastels Lines also increased in vigor and expressive power In addition, the very texture of Degas's work seems an immediate expression of the will of the man himself In his interest in and reliance on abstraction, there is a willfulness and a turning to what Degas himself described as 'mystery' in art" (in exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, pp. 481-482).
The subject of the dancer reigned supreme in Degas's late work. About three-quarters of his output during this period are related to the dance, and in the mid-1890s this subject outnumbers all others three-to-one, and his next most frequent theme, the nude, by nearly two-to-one. Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall have noted that "only his images of the female bathers approached [the dancers] in sustained originality and commitment" (in Degas and the Dance, American Federation of the Arts, New York, 2002, p. 231). During this time Degas was also making photographs of dancers (or so the few extant glass plates have been attributed to him; fig. 1), and he even employed his skill as a poet to pen a series of sonnets about dancers.
Degas's interest in the dance no longer took its primary stimulation from the modern color and spectacle of the productions at the Opéra de Paris--his attendance declined after the mid-1880s, and he allowed his backstage pass to lapse. He was now taking a more detached and abstract vantage point, from which he approached, with a deeper historical understanding, the expression of dance as a timeless form. The American collector Louisine Havemeyer recalled a visit to Degas in 1903; she was already the owner of a dozen pastel and charcoal drawings on dancers. "I asked Degas the question--I blush to record it--a question that had often been asked me: "Why monsieur, do you always do ballet dancers?" The quick reply was: 'Because madame, it is all that is left us of the combined movements of the Greeks'" (quoted in ibid., p. 234). Jeanne Fevre, the artist's niece, reported that Degas read the Greek classics in the original; he was "passionate about the world of antiquity" (ibid, p. 238). A frequent visitor to the Louvre, Degas especially admired ancient Greek friezes, as well as free standing sculptures such as the famous Venus de Milo, in which he perceived both movement and serenity. Henri Hertz has cited Degas as saying that his dancers "followed the Greek tradition purely and simply, almost all antique statues representing the movement and balance of rhythmic dance" (ibid., p. 235).
To George Moore, Degas declared "the dancer is only a pretext for drawing" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit. 1996, p. 134). Paul Valéry described Degas's obsession with drawing: "The sheer labour of drawing had become a passion and a discipline for him, the object of a mystique and an ethic all-sufficient in themselves, a supreme preoccupation which abolished all other matters, a source of endless problems in precision which released him from any other form of inquiry" (in Degas Manet Morisot, Princeton, 1960, p. 64). Charcoal became his sole medium for making drawings. The application of the pastel sticks to paper also constitutes a form of drawing--it is essentially a means of drawing in color--Degas stated, "I am a colorist with line" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1996, p. 257). His reliance on the use of the pastel medium also assumed pre-eminence during the late period, when it accounts for approximately 90 of all works done in color, far out-numbering his oil paintings on canvas, the medium in which almost all artists choose to make their most fully realized and definitive statements. Taking into account the many hundreds of surviving independent drawings that Degas executed, and adding to them the large number of color works that he commenced with an underlying drawing, it becomes clear how thoroughly the practice of drawing informs the content and presentation of the artist's late works, making Degas's oeuvre unique in this regard among the artists of his time.
Degas's method of working in pastel is perhaps as fascinating to follow, insofar as one can recreate the process, as the product is beautiful to behold. Valéry recalled Degas saying "a picture is the result of a series of operations" (quoted in op. cit., p. 6). The artist began Danseuses with a charcoal drawing done on tracing paper. This drawing itself was likely the result of earlier "operations." The idea for this particular pairing of resting dancers may have come the oil painting La salle de danse, circa 1891 (Lemoisne, no. 1107; fig. 2), where they appear just to the right of the post that bisects the composition. A series of drawings followed, some showing the dancers singly (3me Vente Degas, nos. 187, 188, 205, 206, 223, 253, 266 and 274) and then together (3me Vente Degas, nos. 190 [fig. 3], 225 and 237). Degas told his friend, the sculptor Paul-Albert Bartholomé, "It is essential to do the same subject over again, ten times, a hundred times" (quoted in exh. cat., p. cit., 1996, p. 258). He advised fellow painters to "Make a drawing, begin it again, trace it; begin it again, and retrace it" (ibid., p. 81). The reworked tracings and transfers generated vast extended families of related drawings, marking in Degas's work "the emergence of a new kind of seriality, analogous to some of the 'series' patterns of his peers, but technically unique to himself' (ibid., p. 71).
Having arrived at one or more preparatory drawings of the subject that pleased him, Degas traced them a final time, and had Père Lézin, a print specialist, framer and colleur, lay down the sheets of tracing paper on durable Bristol board. The artist purposely avoided the use of fine rag, hand-made and specially textured pastel papers. Degas would then proceed to work the images in pastel, first applying the powdery pigment in broad strokes using the side of the stick, and then utilizing the the tip to create a fine, unidirectional array of what the artist called his "zébrures" ("stripes"), resulting in a densely striated surface of colored lines. He would frequently apply a fixative, made from a unknown recipe given him by the painter Luigi Chialiva, to render each layer of pastel permanent, and allow for further applications and the progressive build-up of color. The layering of pastel generated both subtle hybrid tones and scintillating optical mixtures; Joris-Karl Huysmans noted Degas's ability to "invent neologisms of colourNo artist since Delacroix has understood like M. Degas the marriage and adultery of colours" (quoted in ibid., p. 100).
Some studies were relatively lightly drawn, with minimal layering (Lemoisne, no. 1243; fig. 4), but nearly all are entirely satisfying in the state the artist ceased working on them. The closest siblings in pastel to Danseuses are Deux danseuses en bleu et rose (Lemoisne, no. 1241), and of the right hand figure only, Danseuse rose (Lemoisne, no. 1242). One might designate as cousins by varying degrees those pastels which show the present image reversed (Lemoisne, no. 1367; fig. 5), or reversed and enlarged (Lemoisne, no. 1323; fig. 6). DeVonyer and Kendall have written: "Degas must have thrilled to the sense that this process of repetition and variation so visibly rhymed with the dancing practices it depicted, and that both drawing and ballet exploited the mirroring of actions and the progression from spare, colorless exercises to multi-hued brilliance Color allowed him to manufacture variation after variation on single scenetwinned works were never left as an identical pair, but typically cropped and extended, their details suppressed or their characters modified as he contrived new pictorial identities for each emerging composition By repeating his subjects, Degas seemed to deepen the game he had created, pursuing new expressive permutations that had previously been beyond his self-imposed brief" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2002, pp. 258 and 260).
The large number of drawings and pastels that employ the pose seen in Danseuses attests to Degas's persistent interest in the interaction between these two girls. One aspect of this engagement, as Degas stated, was that they provided him a pretext to draw, to explore ways of seeing and rendering form. Tracking the formal design within this close-up and tightly cropped composition reveals a serpentine arabesque that arises from the open trapezoid of the right-hand dancer's splayed legs, and dovetails with a similar form outlined by the the bent arm and cut-off foot of the left-hand figure. Degas reiterated the narrow V-shape of the merging arm and leg near the center of the composition in the jutting elbow at upper left. This twisting armature of limbs lends shape and movement to the diaphanous veils of color; the narrow shadows create the effect of a shallow relief, as in the Greek friezes Degas studied in the Louvre.
There is a human element here as well. Degas has underscored a sense of intimacy by calling attention to the sympathetic relationship between the two dancers, even if he has given us hardly any indication of their individual expressions and personalities. The overall effect is anonymous, monumental, and timeless; while the dancers seem weary and nearly spent from their endeavors, the composition suggests an underlying resilience, a deeper well of energy held in reserve. The connection between Degas and the dance now comes into focus. Despite differences in age, gender and class, Degas observed in the difficult and all-consuming regimen that these young women practiced a metaphor for process in his own calling, for the aims and ideals he held forth in his art. Degas wrote in one of his sonnets (from R. Gordon and A. Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, p. 201; trans. Richard Howard):
...Those who grasp the mystery
of bodies moving, eloquent and still,
Who see--who must see in the fleeting girls
all trace vanish of their transitory soul,
Flashing faster than the finest strophe;
--All, even the crayon's careful grace:
A dancer has All, though weary as Atalanta:
Serene the tradition, sealed to the profane.
(fig 1) Edgar Degas, Dancer from the Corps de Ballet, c. 1896. Modern print from a glass collodion plate. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
(fig 2) Edgar Degas, La salle de danse, c. 1891. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.
(fig. 3) Edgar Degas, Deux danseuses au repos, c. 1896. Private collection.
(fig. 4) Edgar Degas, Deux danseuses au repos, c. 1898. The Detroit Institute of Arts.
(fig 5) Edgar Degas, Danseuses, c. 1899. Sold, Christie's New York, 10 May 1989, lot 31.
(fig. 6) Edgar Degas, Deux danseuses jaune et rose, c. 1898. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires.