Details
EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
Deux danseuses sur la scène
signed 'Degas' (upper right)
oil on paper laid down on panel
6 5/8 x 8 5/8 in. (17 x 21.7 cm.)
Painted circa 1880
Provenance
Olivier Sainsère, Paris (by 1918).
Mme Olivier Sainsère, Paris (by descent from the above, by 1937).
André Weil, Paris.
Florence J. Gould, Paris and Cannes (by 1976); Estate sale, Sotheby's, New York, 24 April 1985, lot 31.
Acquired by Ann and Gordon Getty at the above sale.
Literature
P. Lafond, Degas, Paris, 1918, vol. I, p. 156 (illustrated in color).
P.A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Paris, 1946, vol. II, p. 344, no. 608 (illustrated, p. 345; with incorrect medium).
J. Lassaigne and F. Minervino, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Degas, Paris, 1974, p. 120, no. 756 (illustrated, p. 121; with incorrect medium).
Exhibited
Paris, Orangerie des Tuileries, Degas, March-April 1937, p. 40, no. 32.
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie., Edgar Degas, June-October 1960, no. 29 (with incorrect medium).
Tokyo, Seibu Museum of Art; Musée de la ville de Kyoto and Centre Culturel de Fukuoka, Degas, September 1976-January 1977, no. 18 (illustrated in color).
Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery and Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, The Private Degas, January-May 1987, pp. 57 and 140, no. 46 (illustrated in color, p. 59, fig. 79; dated circa 1874).
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Degas Sculptures, October 2003-January 2004.

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Lot Essay

Picturing a pair of ballerinas in the midst of a performance, Edgar Degas’s Deux danseuses sur la scène immerses the viewer in the glittering spectacle of the Paris Opéra. The stage set is rendered with a profusion of fantastical color, saturated by the artificial glow of the stage lights. This is echoed in the delicately rendered costumes that the two dancers wear, with flowers adorning the diaphanous layers of their tulle skirts and bodices, as well as their hair. With their bodies pictured in the throes of movement, balancing on one leg and arms thrown forward, this intimately scaled, jewel-like work encapsulates Degas’s abiding preoccupations in his depictions of the ballet. According to Ambroise Vollard, Degas once said, “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” (quoted in C. Lloyd, Edgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels, London, 2007, p. 122).
A dazzling vision of the artist’s most iconic motif, this work dates from a period during which Degas was wholly immersed in the world of the dance. By this time, Degas was fast building a reputation as “the painter of dancers.” This theme had first entered the artist’s work almost inadvertently. A frequent attendee of the Paris Opéra, at the end of the 1860s and beginning of the 1870s, Degas painted a group of works that portrayed the ballet performance from the audience, depicting, with radically cropped compositions, the orchestra and dancer-filled stage beyond. This group includes Ballet de “Robert le Diable” of 1872 (Lemoisne, no. 294; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Lorchestre de l’Opéra, circa 1868-1869 (Lemoisne, no. 186; Musée d’Orsay, Paris).
Degas quickly recognized that the ballet offered him the opportunity to immerse himself in his primary interest and passion—the human form. At the same time, it was a subject hitherto unseen in contemporary art, thereby enabling him to remain at the forefront of the avant-garde. He painted not only the final performances on stage, but depicted the dancers in their rehearsals, as well as at rest, in moments of contemplation and boredom. These various settings allowed the artist to hone in on the myriad of movements and poses, both conscious and unconscious, practiced and spontaneous, that the young dancers made. “To an extraordinary and still underestimated extent,” Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall have written, “Degas’s ambitions developed under the roof of the Paris Opéra, and the materials of his dance art derived from its stage, its rehearsal rooms, and the activities of its personnel” (Degas and the Dance, exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts, 2002, p. 13).
At the time that Degas was working, the ballet and the opera were a central and ubiquitous part of upper-class Parisian life. Audiences flocked to the hallowed sanctum of the Paris Opéra not just to watch the performances themselves, but to engage in social rituals. One commentator of the time described, “to see and to discuss acquaintances, and to be seen and discussed by them, and (for me) to go gossiping from box to box, are…the main objects with which ‘the world’ goes to the Opéra” (quoted in G. Shackelford, Degas, The Dancers, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1985, p. 14). Unlike his contemporaries, Degas chose to mine this element of modern society, capturing the activities of this milieu in the dazzling realm of the Palais Garnier.
Though Degas visited the Opéra frequently—fifty-five times alone in 1885—he rarely transcribed the specifics of a production in his depictions of dancers, nor did he sketch the performances in situ. Instead, he borrowed various aspects of the poses and choreography, costumes and stage sets, and later reconfigured them according to both his imagination and memory in his compositions. Rather than create a faithful record of the precise details of the production, in Deux danseuses sur la scène Degas has instead created an allusion of the ballet, hinting at certain aspects but using them to create a unique composition that conjures the fantasy and magical escapism of the performance. Blurring the boundaries between reality and illusion, artifice and mimesis, this process stood at the heart of Degas’s work on the theme of the ballet, allowing him to revel in the fundamental relationship of life and art.
Though the dancers were the center of the performance Degas has conjured in Deux danseuses sur la scène, they do not appear as such in his rendering of them. Instead of placing them in the middle of the composition, they appear on the periphery of the picture plane, with the farthest dancer cropped. This radical compositional technique was one that Degas returned to again and again. It allowed him not only to impart a sense of movement and dynamism to his images, turning his scenes of Paris into snapshots of modern life, but also enabled him to play with narratives, obscuring the relationships between figures and adding an element of enigma to many of his works. Here, Degas’s skewing of traditional compositional structure enabled him to better translate the graceful, ephemeral movement of the dancers as they passed across the stage in the midst of their performance. In addition, their positions at the edge of the picture plane also mean the stage set is given more prominence, thus turning the scene into a magical mirage of near-abstract color. This formal quality would come to distinguish the artist’s later work, as the detail and refinement of his earlier depictions of the ballet gave way to looser, more fantastical compositions.
Deux danseuses sur la scène was first owned by the Parisian politician and collector, Olivier Sainsère. An avid supporter of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, Sainsère discovered the young Pablo Picasso not long after his arrival in Paris and became a key patron of the artist. The present work latterly entered the collection of the celebrated socialite and art collector, Florence Gould. Having married into a family of wealthy railroad magnates, Gould later began to acquire an extensive group of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century works, by artists including Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
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