‘I think this is one of the most noble and beautiful works by Degas that I've seen on the market in the past 30 years,’ says Christie’s Global President Jussi Pylkkänen of Dans les coulisses, Edgar Degas’ pastel on linen from 1882-85. ‘I saw it for the first time some 15 years ago, and was immediately struck by its uniqueness and its beauty.’
On 27 February, Dans les coulisses will be a highlight of the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in London. That the work should have come to market at all comes as something of a surprise to Pylkkänen. ‘This is the sort of piece that I would have imagined one of the great Impressionist collectors in America buying in the 1950s or 1960s, which would by now have found its way to one of the major museum collections in the United States,’ he observes. ‘It’s museum-quality in every sense of the expression: incredibly rare, in beautiful condition, and originally owned by a close friend of the artist.’
Whether ballet, music or opera, Degas (1834-1917) was immersed in the culture of performance. ‘Yet the experience was less about the actual event that was taking place than the individuals who made the magic,’ Pylkkänen explains.
In Dans les coulisses, a young woman stands in the wings of the Paris Opéra, about to go on stage. Beside her is an abonné: one of the cadre of well-heeled French men who paid a subscription to be allowed behind the scenes.
‘Just before you actually perform is the moment when your adrenaline’s starting to run — there’s this tremendous sense of anticipation. And then, of course, the young singer will emerge onto a floodlit stage and move from onlooker to the star of the show,’ says Pylkkänen, who last November auctioned Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi in front of a Facebook Live audience of some 460,000 people.
‘Rather like a photograph, it’s a snapshot of a much broader scene we’re not seeing. Degas has only intimated at what’s going on beyond the area of the subject’
‘The most extraordinary thing about this work, though, is that the main action is actually outside the frame itself,’ says Pylkkänen. ‘Rather like a photograph, it's a snapshot of a much broader scene which we're not seeing. Degas has only intimated what's going on beyond the area of the subject.’
In the 1880s Degas shifted from oil paint to pastel. ‘There was an intimacy, an immediacy of execution which he particularly liked; he could work very quickly,’ Pylkkänen explains. ‘Here he has executed the pastel on linen, which takes the pastel much better than a flat piece of unprepared paper. This results in these lovely velvety tones, and the beautiful textures of the textiles of her dress, of the man's bowler hat, of his smart jacket. You also get an extraordinary iridescent effect, suggesting the lights coming off the stage towards the audience.’
The work originally belonged to Henri Rouart, the renowned engineer, painter and art collector. By 1882, when Degas began Dans les coulisses, he and Rouart had known each other for nearly 15 years. A great connoisseur, Rouart’s extensive collection included works by Cézanne, Pissarro, Manet and the Old Master painters, as well as an exceptional collection of works by Degas. ‘One feels that probably Rouart had the pick of anything that his great friend produced, and here you have arguably one of the greatest works in his collection,’ says Pylkkänen.
Dans les coulisses went to Rouart shortly after it was executed and, until its sale in Paris 20 years ago, remained in his family. Today the pastel is still in its original frame, effectively as it would have been shown when it was first acquired by Degas’ friend more than 130 years ago. Pylkkänen credits its pristine condition to this exceptional provenance.
‘Any of Degas’ works from the 1880s are considered to be the product of a mature genius, and many of the pieces he executed at this time are now in public institutions all over the world,’ Pylkkänen notes. ‘These incredibly intimate large-scale pastels of singers are very, very rare in Degas’ oeuvre. And the “wings” pieces, which capture the relationship between two engaged onlookers behind the scenes, are the rarest and the most immediate of all.’