EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
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EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
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EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)

Trois danseuses

EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
Trois danseuses
stamped with signature 'Degas' (Lugt 658; lower left)
pastel and charcoal on joined paper laid down on card
27 5/8 x 20 1/8 in. (70 x 51 cm.)
Drawn circa 1900
Estate of the artist; Third sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 7-9 April 1919, lot 189.
Ambroise Vollard, Paris (acquired at the above sale).
Galerie Etienne Bignou, Paris and New York.
Amante, Paris.
Collection Nathanson.
Galerie de l'Élysée (Alex Maguy), Paris (by 1972).
Private collection, Japan.
Acquired by the present owner, circa 1990.

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Lot Essay

The subject of the dancer reigned supreme in Degas' late work. No other artist has so brilliantly brought the world of the ballet to life through his art than Degas. His life-long fascination with the subject led him to create countless studies and finished works of dancers at rest or in motion, both on and off-stage in a variety of media. The ever-changing character of ballet as a form of physical expression paralleled Degas' own artistic experiments, particularly his obsession of capturing the human body from every conceivable angle and level. As Lillian Browse explained, Degas "used that art [of ballet] for the exploration of his own" (Degas Dancers, London, 1949, p. 46).
Degas executed few sketches and paintings of actual performances and the more polished movements of dancers sur la scene. The major body of his work explores the life of the dancer off-stage, in the practice studio or at rest, and demonstrates how Degas preferred to capture the spontaneity and the chance happenings of the backstage world. Lillian Browse has observed, "for the painter who desired to peep through the keyhole, who loved the 'accidental,' it was all ideal" (ibid., p. 52).
The present work is one of a handful of charcoal studies and pastel drawings executed circa 1900 (Lemoisne, nos. 1371-1376). Broadly and rapidly executed in charcoal with the immediacy of a snapshot, the present drawing depicts each of the dancers busily adjusting themselves before class begins. The three figure possess expressive development of line, enabling Degas to evoke a sense of their bodily volume. Richard Kendall has explained, "Degas increasingly used the subject of the ballet to break new compositional ground or cross pictorial frontiers, such as those between pastel and printmaking or between the depiction of public spectacle and private behaviour" (Degas and the Little Dancer, exh. cat., Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, 1998, p. 3).
One of the most distinctive shifts in Degas' working practice in later life was towards the sequence or series. Rather than create a unique statement of his chosen subject, in the form of a single drawing, pastel or oil painting, he would generate a succession of near-identical variants that eventually formed a "family" of compositions, some with just two or three members, others extending to twenty or thirty related works. Though some of his contemporaries have become celebrated for their sequential canvases, such as Monet's Rouen Cathedral cycle and Cézanne's repeated views of Mont Saint-Victoire, there is no precedent for the pervasiveness of Degas' later serial practice, which accounted in his last decades for the overwhelming majority of his pictures (R. Kendall, Degas: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 1996, p. 186).
Kendall has pointed out the importance of Degas' almost exclusive reliance on charcoal and pastel in these late drawings, allowing for the utmost intensity in the black contour lines and among the colour relationships in the compositions. Also notable in these late works is the use of tracing, by which Degas could repeat the vague outlines of a composition, then explore the full range of expressive variations inherent in the pose (including the "flipping" of an image in the reverse direction) or experiment in different chromatic schemes. This method also enabled Degas to build up complex figure compositions with two or more dancers, and to exploit the most effective possibilities resulting from the counterpoint of multiple figures.
"Some of Degas' final drawings must be considered among the most powerful and touching representations of dancers," Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall have written, "though their relationships to events on the Opéra stage, to the art of the Louvre and even to the practice of the ballet has now become enigmatic and perhaps irrelevant" (Degas and the Dance, exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts, 2002, p. 252).

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