Ludovic Halévy (1834-1908) had already achieved celebrity as a playwright and co-librettist for some of Jacques Offenbach's most successful opérettes, including Orphée aux enfers (1858), when he began in 1870 to publish stories in the magazine La Vie Parisienne about life behind the scenes at L'Opéra de Paris. He created memorable characterizations of the stout and redoubtable Mme Cardinal, her stuffy husband, and most appealingly, Pauline and Virginie, their two teenaged daughters, who were dancers in the Opéra corps de ballet. Halévy recounted actual encounters and conversations to which he himself was often a party as he plied his backstage beat. He published the first collection of these tales, entitled Madame et Monsieur Cardinal, in 1872. The book ran to eighteen editions by the end of 1875, selling tens of thousands of copies. A second volume of Famille Cardinal stories came out in 1880 under the title Les Petites Cardinal and also became a best-seller. La Famille Cardinal, a compilation of both volumes, was published in 1883.
The Famille Cardinal stories immediately caught Degas's eye as they appeared in La Vie Parisienne. The artist had known Halévy since 1846, when they were schoolmates at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Both men were the same age, and had come to share a passion for the opera and ballet (fig. 1). They had connections that accorded them unlimited access to the labyrinth of backstage corridors and practice rooms at the Opéra, where famous and wealthy gentlemen of all ages were wont to lurk and prowl, pursuing their hope of striking up a liaison with a pretty dancer in her teens. Rather conventional and mediocre drawings by Edmond Morin illustrated Halévy's 1872 book; Degas wanted to create a more strikingly modern and evocative visual record of this largely unknown and racy side of the Opéra milieu. He began to produce a series of monotypes related to Halévy's stories by early 1877, and showed several of these new works in the Third Impressionist Exhibition that year.
Many of Degas's monotypes are only loosely connected to Halévy's narrative, but the present work clearly illustrates a passage in the story Monsieur Cardinal, which was included in the author's first collection of 1872. The scene is a backstage lounge at the Opéra. Halévy has chanced upon Mme Cardinal, one of the many ubiquitously vigilant stage mothers who played both chaperone and procuress as they tried to shepherd a nubile daughter into a relationship that would eventually result in a marriage beneficial to the girl's family. The author wrote: "The dressing room door was open and I looked in... Three or four mothers were there, sitting on rattan chairs, talking, knitting or dozing. In a corner I spied Mme Cardinal. Her two white corkscrew curls perfectly framed her matriarchal face. With her snuff box on her knees and her spectacles on her nose, she was reading a newspaper. Mme Cardinal, completely absorbed in her reading, did not see me coming. I dropped down on a little stool beside her... " (quoted in J.S. Boggs et al, Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, p. 282).
By 1880 Degas had executed a series of nearly forty monotype impressions related to the to the Famille Cardinal stories, his most extended series in this medium on a single theme (fig. 2). He undertook this project at the height of his interest in the monotype technique, which in his hands was especially well-suited to setting down observations of contemporary life caught on the fly. The reviewer Jules Claretie admired the monotypes which Degas had included in the Third Impressionist Exhibition: "M. Degas [is] a man of intellect, an acute and original, and profound observer of Paris life... He knows, and represents like no one else, life backstage at the theater, the rehearsal halls of the ballet, and the luscious appeal of the young ballerinas... He has undertaken to illustrate Monsieur et Madame Cardinal [sic] by Ludovic Halévy. His drawings have extraordinary character: they are life itself... In short, M. Degas has created scenes of Paris--its everyday life and its lowlife--which will one day astonish the public when a publisher decides to collect and produce them in an album. This man's profound understanding of humankind will then truly be revealed" (quoted in ibid., p. 280).
Employing the "light-field" technique, Degas applied black ink to a copper plate with a brush, rag and his fingers. He then laid a sheet of paper on it, and ran them through a press. The initial impression thus produced, as seen here, possessed strong contrasts; one or two successive impressions would be noticeably fainter. The present work is one of nine sheets in the overall series which the artist then reworked with pastel, this one more substantially than most of the others. It is the only known impression which Degas both signed and dedicated to Halévy. Degas probably intended to impress the author with the idea of using his recent monotypes as illustrations in a new edition of Famille Cardinal stories. Halévy did not go along, however, possibly because Degas had recognizably used the author's features in this and other works in the series, a device that had the effect of blurring the line between autobiography and fiction to a degree that may have made Halévy feel uneasy. Moreover, according to Ambroise Vollard, "Halévy did not understand Degas's talent, but Mme Halévy, who admired him, encouraged him to prepare the drawings [i.e., the montotypes]. She assured Degas that she would persuade her husband, but failed" (op. cit., p. 281, fn 9).
Because it had been given to Halévy, the present work was not part of the La Famille Cardinal portfolio that was offered in the November 1918 sale of the prints from Degas's estate, but did not sell. The contents of the portfolio were then stored with Durand-Ruel, until Marcel Guerin organized a sale on 17 March 1928, the monotypes realized the remarkable sum of 408,500 francs. A variant related to the present work, likewise retouched with pastel (Brame and Reff, no. 96A; Janis, no. 212; fig. 3), was part of that portfolio and has subsequently been widely exhibited and illustrated. The publisher Auguste Blaizot, one of buyers in the 1928 sale, held the rights to publish the monotypes. In 1938 he brought out an edition of La Famille Cardinal in which Halévy's stories were finally united with Degas's monotypes. Meanwhile, the present work remained in the possession of the Halévy family and heirs, with the result that its location was unknown to scholars. Eugenia Janis illustrated the faint second impression of this subject, which is un-reworked, in her 1968 checklist of the monotypes (op. cit., no. 214), while stating "first impression unknown." This exceptional work finally came to light when it was sold in a Paris auction in 1986. As Jill de Vonyar and Richard Kendall have pointed out, "While these monotypes have been repeatedly invoked in studies of the artist, their status as an atypical aspect of his iconography still awaits recognition" (Degas and the Dance, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2003, p. 63).
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Portraits d'amis sur la scène (Ludovic Halévy et Albert Boulanger-Cavé), pastel, 1878-1879. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Barcode: 2724 9239
(fig. 2) Edgar Degas, Pauline et Virginie en conversation avec des admirateurs, monotype in black ink, circa 1880. Private collection.
Barcode: 2724 9215
(fig. 3) Edgar Degas, Ludovic Halévy et Mme Cardinal, pastel over monotype, the first impression of version B, 1879-1880. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Graphische Sammlung.
Barcode: 2724 9222