Degas's interest in the dance dominated his work during the 1880s. Grande Arabesque, deuxime temps," belongs to a "period in the mid-1880s when his sculpture reached a kind of classical zenith" (quoted in Degas, exh. cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988, p. 586). Indeed, the present sculpture displays extraordinary balance and poise. The surface is smoothly modeled, in contrast to the works of later years. Degas's refined technique contributes to the classical perfection of the pose. Degas was always interested in movement (he sculpted his series of horses to help him to understand their bodies in motion), and here he has captured the young dancer in a split second of absolute equilibrium.
"It was in his passionate search for movement that all the statuettes of dancers doing arabesques, bowing, rubbing their knees, putting their stockings on, etc., and of woman arranging their hair, stretching, rubbing their neck and so on were created. All of these women are caught in poses which represent one single instant, in an arrested movement which is pregnant with the movement just completed and the one about to follow. To use Baudelaire's words, Degas loved the human body as a material harmony, as a beautiful architecture with the addition of movement" (J. Rewald, op. cit., p. 23).
Degas was remarkably precise and conscientious to this approach to modeling the figure. He usually worked from models in long sessions. He would use a plumb-line to guarantee that the pose of his model and his sculpture were identical, and in his late years he even resorted to using a calipers as an aid because of his failing sight.
The present pose first appears in Degas's work in 1881 and is featured in about two dozen paintings, pastels and drawings. Degas may have used this sculpture as a basis for some of the later works. In various drawings he shows two or three dancers in this pose, each at a slightly different angle from the viewer (as they would be viewed together in reality) a difficult task when drawing from the model, but one he could easily accomplish by using the sculpture as his source and turning it slightly for each dancer in the composition. The British painter Walter Richard Sickert recounts having seen the wax model of this sculpture in Degas's studio in the early 1890s; Degas appears to have taken good care of it (many of his wax sculptures were damaged, have fallen apart or were otherwise lost over the years), and the pose appears in drawings as late as 1900-1905.
The wax model of the present work is in the collection of the late Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia, in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.