Edgar Degas' Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes is one of his celebrated images of ballet dancers. This exquisite pastel, filled with glowing colour, was cited by Lemoisne, in his catalogue raisonné of Degas' works, as a study either of, or after, one of his most acclaimed masterpieces, his large-scale painting En attendant l'entrée en scène, also known as Four Dancers, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Intriguingly, whereas that large oil painting was still in Degas' studio at the time of his death - the artist was a notorious holder and found it very hard to part with his pictures - Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes was signed and released, a tribute to its quality and to Degas' own satisfaction with it. Indeed, it featured in the 1911 auction of Maurice Masson's collection in Paris, before eventually passing into the hands of the important Chicago collector Martin Ryerson and thence to the Art Institute of Chicago, of which he was such a prominent benefactor.
Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes shows a typically intimate and informal moment, with the dancer of the title shifting the strap on her shoulder; the other hangs loose, implying that her attention will next be addressed to it. In the background, another dancer moves. This is an intriguing and absorbing moment of calm before the storm of performance, a glimpse into the preparations preceding the imminent burst of activity upon the stage. Degas has captured this scene with an incredible attention to detail, while also bathing it in rich, deep colours, allowing a dense build-up of the streaking lines of his pastel to create a lush appearance. The almost expressionistic lilac and blue hues of the lower half and the deep greens of the set shown in the background highlight Degas' sensitive rendering of the skin tones of both of the figures in the near foreground, yet upon closer observation, even these are highlighted with flashes of colour which convey the sense of shade and modelling of the flesh in the torsos.
'People call me the painter of dancing girls,' Degas once said. 'It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes' (Degas, quoted in R. Kendall, ed., Degas by Himself: Drawings, Prints, Paintings, Writings, London, 1987, p. 306). In Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes this is all the more clear: Degas has clearly created a highly studied image of the dancers almost coiled before the frenzied activity of their performance. The ballet provided Degas with a subject that allowed him to explore both motion and grace; this was the central theme of the recent, acclaimed exhibition Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement held at the Royal Academy, London. Degas also used dancers as a pretext for a rich exploration of colour forms, using their clothes as cues for his own sensual rendering. The use of pastel and the vigorous application to the picture surface give the impression that Degas created this image in a stolen moment behind the scenes.
In fact, his search of such intimate moments completely belied the amount of effort which the artist devoted to his craft. 'I assure you that no art was ever less spontaneous than mine,' he himself protested. '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 ibid., p. 311). Revealing the extent to which this was the case, Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes is one of several images showing variations upon the same composition, some of which ultimately relate to En attendant l'entrée en scène. A charcoal with pastel highlights showing a near-identical figure to that in Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes is in the collection of the Bremen Kunsthalle, as is a charcoal drawing showing the grouping of the figures, a composition that was echoed in another image of a group of dancers. Degas appears to have posed models, as was his artistic practice, in order to create this succession of observations; this included studies of figures adopting the positions chosen in all of these pictures, shown naked.
Lemoisne dated En attendant l'entrée en scène, and by extension Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes, to circa 1896-99. Sometimes, a wider date is given for the National Gallery of Art picture, not least because it remained in Degas' studio and he therefore may have continued to work on it, as he was known to do. Sometimes, an earlier date of 1895 is mooted for the National Gallery of Art picture, in part because it was then that Degas acquired his first camera. It was shortly afterwards that he, or someone under his direction, created three photographic images on collodion negative plates showing models striking poses that clearly relate to En attendant l'entrée en scène; this reveals a new thirst for innovation from the pioneering artist as he embraced new media to make his pictures. Marking the terminus ante quem, in 1898 and 1899 Degas is known to have sold several pastels showing groups of dancers in poses again relating to En attendant l'entrée en scène. Two of these, the so-called Blue Dancers in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and Danseuses in the Toledo Museum of Art, focus mainly on a figure adjusting her straps, shown from behind. A third, by contrast, sold at auction in 1997 for $11,002,500, features in the foreground two figures echoing those in Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes.
It has been speculated that those pastels may have been created either as studies towards the National Gallery picture, or as variations upon that theme afterwards. Bearing in mind its similarities to the simpler picture in Bremen, George T.M. Shackelford has speculated that Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes may in fact have been commenced as a charcoal study of a model adjusting her strap, before being revisited and used as the basis for the much more finished pastel that it has subsequently become (see G.T.M. Shackelford, Degas: The Dancers, exh. cat., Washington DC, 1984, p. 119). This may also explain why Degas, a renowned perfectionist, was content to see it leave his hands - and why Durand-Ruel was happy to buy it when it was offered in 1911 in Maurice Masson's sale.
Degas was an incredible innovator in the realm of pastels, a medium to which he turned predominantly when he was already an artist of great maturity and repute. His fellow artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir was enraptured by them - indeed, he treasured one himself. Renoir declared that, 'If Degas had died at fifty, he would have been remembered as an excellent painter, no more: it is after his fiftieth year that his work broadened out and that he really becomes Degas' (Renoir, quoted in R. Kendall, Degas beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., London, 1996, p. 10). He also commented, in terms which make clear Degas' virtuosity in a medium that others found challenging, 'When one sees his pastels!... To think that with a medium which is so unpleasant to handle, he has succeeded in rediscovering the tone of frescos' (Renoir, quoted in G. Adriani, Degas: Pastels, Oil Sketches, Drawings, London, 1985, p. 62).
Degas' use of pastel was indicative of his entire working process. Essentially, it allowed him to revisit works from the past, sometimes, as Shackelford has implied, by continuing to build upon an extant picture, often using layers of fixative in order to create a stable foundation upon which to continue at a later date. On other occasions, Degas mined the precedents of earlier artists and indeed his own oeuvre. Degas had first started to depict ballet dancers at the Paris Opéra, where they often performed in dance interludes, in the late 1860s. Shackelford explained that En attendant l'entrée en scène may have had its inception in the cluster of figures in an earlier ballerina picture painted by 1876, his Danseuses se préparant au ballet in the Art Institute of Chicago, also known as Yellow Dancers (In the Wings). Similarly, both the National Gallery picture and Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes reprise the posture of one of the dancers shown in Danseuses, a pastel of 1884 or 1885 which was already a development of his earlier themes and which is now in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Degas' fascination with the theme of the woman adjusting the strap may have an older precedent too, as is the case with those images where the girl is adjusting the dress on one side with the same hand, as opposed to reaching across as is the case here. Degas, especially during his younger years, had been known for his incredible hunger for the art of prior generations stretching back to the ancients, and appears to have known the celebrated 'Diane de Gabies', the marble of the goddess Artemis traditionally attributed to the legendary sculptor Praxiteles and now in the Louvre, Paris. This possible origin of such a simple yet at the same time hieratic pose heightens the incredible balance and tension in Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes between the fleeting moment and timelessness. Degas himself was once asked by Louisine Havemeyer, the American collector who first introduced his works to the United States, why he so often depicted ballet dancers; his reply was revealing: 'Because, madame, it is all that is left us of the combined movement of the Greeks' (Degas, quoted in R. Gordon & A. Forge, Degas, London, 1988, p. 264).
It is a tribute to the quality of Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes that it featured in the important collection of Maurice Masson. When Masson's collection was offered at auction at the Hôtel Drouot in 1911, this was one of the pictures accorded a full-page illustration. It featured alongside works by artists including Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In the preface to the catalogue, Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes was one of the pictures that Achille Segard singled out for praise, discussing its concision and its surprising and astonishing colours and expression. Segard, discussing Masson's collection, explained that he had worked hard to distil it over the years, keeping only the works that were able to sustain daily admiration. And this admiration was shared by visitors who had come to hear of the collection, whom Masson would allow to visit, 'whether this was an unknown passer-by, or a highly distinguished guest such as Monsieur Anatole France or Monsieur Rodin' (A. Segard, preface to auction catalogue, June 1911, n.p.).
Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes later came into the collection of Major and Mrs Martin A. Ryerson of Chicago. Ryerson was the son of a lumber baron who had begun his career as a minor fur trader but had died a millionaire in the late nineteenth century, having developed large swathes of Chicago. Martin A. Ryerson was a prominent citizen of Chicago, a philanthropist after whom a number of institutions are named. He was also involved in the 'World Columbian Esposition' in 1893, better known as the 'Chicago World's Fair,' at which Impressionist works were exhibited. From that point on, Ryerson became an avid collector; frequently travelling to Europe, he bought works by the Old Masters but increasingly focussed upon the living, striking up acquaintances with some of the Impressionists. In particular, he acquired a formidable collection of works by Monet, whom he met in Giverny and even tried to convince to sell him his water lily frieze. Ryerson had a long-standing relationship with the Art Institute of Chicago; indeed, his brother-in-law was president of the trustees. The library there is named after him; during his lifetime he donated a number of works and his subsequent bequest of hundreds of pictures included Danseuse rajustant ses épaulettes. This donation, alongside the famous Potter-Palmer collection, helped ensure that the Art Institute of Chicago holds one of the strongest collections of Monet's pictures in the world (see S. Monneret, L'Impressionnisme et son époque: Dictionnaire international, vol. I, Paris, 1979, p. 824).