Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
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Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Trois femmes debout (étude de nu)

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Trois femmes debout (étude de nu)
stamped with the signature 'Degas' (Lugt 658; lower left)
charcoal on tracing paper
26 3/8 x 20 in. (67 x 51 cm.)
Drawn circa 1893-1898
The artist's estate; third sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 7-9 April 1919, lot 240 (illustrated p. 188).
Anonymous sale, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, 22 November 2000, lot 12.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
London, The National Gallery, Degas, Beyond Impressionism, May - August 1996, fig. 82 (illustrated p. 82); this exhibition later travelled to Chicago, The Art institute.
Rovereto, Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, La Danza delle Avanguardie, Dipinti, scene e costumi da Degas a Picasso, da Matisse a Keith Haring, December - May 2006 (illustrated p. 204).
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Jessica Brook
Jessica Brook

Lot Essay

The world of dance offered Degas seemingly limitless possibilities in the study and rendering of the human body as observed in a singularly perfect mode of expression. Well-practiced in the training and discipline of the ballet arts, lithe and agile women in the flower of youth moved with unsurpassed elegance and refinement, against the background of extravagant and fanciful sets. There was, within this same milieu, the opportunity for Degas to view his favourite subjects in casual, less glamorous moments, when the artist liked to take note of the young women as they were standing about or resting from their work, in situations which he found to be even more fascinating in their visual aspect than the actual performances themselves.

The present charcoal appears to record a scene of the latter kind. Depicting three figures, it is the woman on the left that is the centre of attention. She stands front and centre with her feet in the fourth position, while leaning forward with her arms akimbo and bent slightly backward, a limber stance which suggests her readiness to spring into step and take up her part.

However it is significant that the figures are nude, as it identifies them as models rather than active dancers, and the setting to be Degas’ studio rather than the wings of the Paris ballet.

By the 1890s, Degas had taken over a large new studio at 37 rue Victor Massé. He spent less time at the ballet, and instead narrowed his attention to a few essential themes, chief among them the dance and the nude. As the basis for his new research he could draw upon a bank of images that he had accumulated over the past decades, from sketchbooks, drawings and paintings that he had kept, as well as his prodigious visual memory. When necessary, he might summon models to his new studio, where they recreated the experience of the rehearsals of the ballet.

Typical of Degas’s serial working procedure at this time, Trois femmes debout (étude de nu) belongs to a network of drawings and pastels that depict the three women seen here, where the original idea for the left-hand dancer appears to stem from two major oil paintings done in the period circa 1890-1893 (Lemoisne no. 1013, Musée d’Orsay, Paris; Lemoisne no. 1014, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In this practice, Degas’s preliminary drawing would serve as a model from which he made subsequent tracings that resulted in further variants of the image, including some in pastel and others purely in charcoal, such as the present work.

As Richard Kendall has noted of this drawing, ‘Almost twenty additional varieties of this versatile theme can be identified and more than thirty compositions linked back to their shared roots…all owing their origin to a ballerina posed with hands on hips measuring some 53 or 54 centimetres in height…Developed historically as a means of copying, tracing was never used by Degas to make identical replicas of his pictures, but to disseminate a suite of endlessly nuanced variations and some radical transformations of his original subject. Degas traced freely rather than pedantically, exploring the fluidity of the charcoal line to vary a pose or heighten a contour, and following his pastels towards the decorative, the starkly descriptive or the chromatically grand’ (quoted in Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, London, 1996, p. 82).

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