From his first encounters with the ballet, Edgar Degas was fascinated by the captivating world of the dance, illustrating every step from the arduous hours of rehearsals that lay behind each production, to the expectant preparations of the dancers as they waited in the wings, and finally, the sumptuous colours, lights, and movements that were hallmarks of their performances on stage. However, it was during the final two decades of this career that the theme of the female dancer truly came to occupy his work most intensely, with the artist devoting more than three-quarters of his production in all media to the subject. During the 1890s, his approach to the theme shifted and changed, turning away from the spectacle and glamour of the final performance, to focus instead on the incredible athleticism, movement and repetition that underpinned their artistry. In Danseuse rose, Degas offers an informal glimpse of life behind the curtain in his portrayal of a lithe, agile dancer enjoying a brief moment of repose and respite between rehearsals, reaching down to stretch her leg, before returning to the dance once again.
Degas himself was open about the fact that his pictures, while intended to look like snapshots showing fleeting, passing moments in the life of the ballerina, were in fact the product of a great deal of investigation and rigorous execution. ‘I assure you that no art was ever less spontaneous than mine,’ he confessed. ‘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’ (quoted in R. Kendall, ed., Degas by Himself: Drawings, Prints, Paintings, Writings, London, 1987, p. 311). Indeed, he typically returned to the same pose again and again in multiple different compositions, exploring its potential across charcoal drawings, pastels, wax sculpture and oil on canvas, sometimes changing small elements such as the angle from which the subject was seen, or the slight tilt of the body as it leaned into a pose. By the 1890s, Degas primarily used models within the confines of his studio in order to analyse individual movements or gestures at length, moving away from the spontaneous discoveries of life in the wings, and instead setting his figures in carefully curated poses and scenarios.
People call me the painter of dancing girls. It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes”
Degas told the sculptor Paul-Albert Bartholomé, ‘it is essential to do the same subject over again, ten times, a hundred times…’ and the large number of drawings and pastels that employ the pose seen in Danseuse rose attests to the artist’s persistent interest in this particular motif (quoted in R. Kendall, Degas: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., London, 1996, p. 258). Propping her right leg up on the bench beside her, the dancer leans her body over towards her foot, stretching both her torso and leg muscles in the process. Across a series of drawings and pastels, Degas explored the manner in which the movement created a sinuous line through the dancer’s body, filling her form with a controlled tension, as she reached towards her toes. While some works spotlighted the dancer singly, focusing on subtle shifts in the angles and positioning of their limbs, others paired her with several of her fellow dancers, lending the pose a new dynamism as it reflected and interacted with the other figures. In another variation, her placement on the sheet was reversed, most likely through the use of tracing paper, to create a mirror-image of the scene in which her left leg is now raised on the bench. Fulfilling Degas’s mantra to ‘Make a drawing, begin it again, trace it; begin it again, and retrace it,’ these vast extended families of interrelated works represented a new kind of seriality in his late oeuvre (ibid., p. 81).
Using an array of different strokes to capture the contrasting textures of her skirt, her skin, and the surrounding environment, Danseuse rose also demonstrates the increasingly bold and experimental nature of Degas’s work with pastel at this time. Filled with overlapping layers of bright colour, the scene comes alive in a densely worked, brilliantly hued, interlacing network of lines. Exploiting the powdery pigments of his pastels, Degas worked first in broad strokes using the side of the stick before employing the tip to generate a fine, unidirectional pattern of lines that he called zébrures (‘stripes’), resulting in a surface dense with coloured stitches. The artist preserved each layering of pastel with frequent applications of fixative, prepared from a recipe known only to its inventor Luigi Chialiva and himself, which allowed him to work over earlier layers of colour without disturbing them, creating a build-up of brilliant pastel hues that resulted in scintillating optical mixtures.
I am a colourist with line. To colour is to pursue drawing into greater depth”
Unlike other pastels from this period, in which the costumes are summarily sketched soft clouds of colour with just hints of additional tones in places, in Danseuse rose the tutu is created using a myriad of hues, the bold directional strokes of pigment capturing the distinctive texture of the material. Indeed, Degas employs an incredible range of colour across the composition, from skeins of apple greens and turquoise, to soft corals, delicate pinks and cool, pale lavenders, which intermingle and overlap, creating an almost electric play of colour. As Richard Kendall has eloquently noted, ‘In pastel, Degas found a medium that propelled him towards extravagance, using the patient tracings of his draughtsmanship as a springboard to the “orgies of colour” of his final decades. Fusing tradition with violent innovations, Degas seized on pastel as the ultimate medium of his maturity, uniting in a single material the expressiveness of paint with the sparseness and precision of drawing’ (ibid., p. 89).
Danseuse Rose was purchased in 1907 by the accomplished photographer, painter and patron of the arts, Sarah Choate Sears. Born into a wealthy Bostonian family, Sarah Carlisle Choate had married Joshua Montgomery Sears in 1877, and swiftly became a preeminent tastemaker within Boston society at the turn of the 20th century. Having studied at the Cowles Art School and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Sears was an enthusiastic painter, and joined watercolour clubs in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and also experimented with pastel. However, it was her passion for photography which would secure her international reputation. Having initially become interested in the medium in the 1890s, she soon developed a distinct style, focusing on still-life and portraiture. Her photographic works were included in several prestigious exhibitions, from Berlin to London, Chicago to Vienna, and most notably the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. Membership of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession followed in 1903 and two of her photographic portraits were published in the April 1907 issue of Stieglitz’s quarterly, Camera Work. After her husband died in 1905, Sears travelled through Europe for two years, spending time in Paris with Mary Cassatt, who advised her in her collecting activities and encouraged her to purchase works by artists such as Degas, Paul Cézanne, Édouard Manet and Henri Matisse. Danseuse Rose remained with Sears for two decades and subsequently entered the Reader’s Digest Collection, where it resided for a further fifty years, before being purchased by the present owner.
Lot Essay Header Image: Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion, Plate 188, Femme drapée dansant, 1872-1885. Beaux-Arts de Paris. Photo: © Beaux-Arts de Paris, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image Beaux-arts de Paris.