During the 1890s Degas turned more and more to working in pastel, experimenting in order to achieve an increasingly expressionistic pictorial effect. 'Painting was already increasingly giving way to drawing, in Degas' output, during the 1880s, with a range extending from fleeting graphic notes that captured a quick moment of observation to pastel pictures featuring a degree of luminosity and free treatment of colour which influenced his work in oils. He was able, by converting pastel into a complete colour medium, to reconcile Ingres' command of line with Delacroix's radiant colouring. A draughtsman with colour and painter with pastel sticks, he succeeded in making the line carry the colour and colour to become an integral element in line. The subtle tonal gradations modulating light and shade effects so prevalent in the 1870s, and the use of line to analyse form, were replaced as time went on by a more independent concentration of coloured shading strokes, sparkling networks of short, mainly vertical or oblique hatching, which tended to go beyond pure representation. The application of many layers of parallel- or cross-hatching generated intense surface textures, largely free from erasure, such as could hardly been achieved in oil or tempera techiques. The effect of this is at once open and transparent, as well as firmly implanted in the coloured reticulation' (G. Adriani, Degas, Pastels, Oil Sketches, Drawings, London, 1985, p. 95).
Degas' pastels of the 1890s were extremely innovative and often very experimental: the artist abandoned the very smooth application of colour typical of French Rococo in favour of 'broken, rhythmically animated structures' (ibidem , p. 95), which greatly suited his favourite subjects - in particular his ballerinas. The new technique prompted Degas to working increasingly in series, which became his modus pingendi after the mid 1880s. When inspired by a striking subject or particular element in it, Degas would elaborate upon the newly discovered point of focus, thus producing a series of variations which allowed him to explore alternative nuances of composition or harmonies of colour.
The present picture is one of a group of five pastels (L. 1250-1253 including 1250 bis) which Lemoisne has dated circa 1896. There are at least ten works in the sequence, including a smaller group that lacks the third dancer in the background, but all of them feature the central ballerina with hands on hips and her companions, variously hidden by elements of stage decor (L. 1015-1019 and 1250-1253). The trio of dancers is first studied in a pencil bozzetto (L. 1250 bis, fig. 1); then depicted in a more complex pastel composition now in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow (L. 1250; fig. 2) where the group is caught from behind the stage courtain; finally, the ballerinas are captured in the present pastel, the most finished and well-balanced of the series.
Commenting on Degas' late pastels, Götz Adriani speaks rapturously about the artist's extraordinary working methods so perfectly illustrated in the present pastel: 'The mosaic-like network of partly revealed and partly covered strokes on mostly yellow paper thereby produce an even more daring interlacing of colour. Complementary or equivalent layers of colours were juxtaposed, and backgrounds were contrasted with surfaces, depending on whether it was a matter of intensifying or neutralizing the colour constellations. Yet there was not the slightest tendency to dissolve form through colour, which continued mainly to impart substance to form' (ibidem, p. 95).
Renoir remarked to Vollard that 'If Degas had died at fifty, he would have been remembrered as an excellent painter, no more. It is after his fiftieth year that his work broadens out and that he really becomes Degas' (quoted in I. Dunlop, Degas, London, 1979, p. 188).