Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism
EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)

Danseuse sur une pointe

EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
Danseuse sur une pointe
signed 'Degas' (lower right)
pastel and pen and brush and sepia ink over pencil on paper laid down on card
6 ¾ x 8 ¼ in. (17 x 21 cm.)
Executed circa 1877
The Leicester Galleries (Ernest Brown & Phillips), London (by 1922).
Alfred Strölin, Paris.
Mercedes Santamarina, Buenos Aires.
Private collection, Buenos Aires.
Wildenstein & Co. Inc., New York (acquired from the above, 1992).
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1996.
The Burlington Magazine, January 1922, vol. XI, no. 226, p. XV (illustrated).
C. Porter, Six Decades at the Leicester Galleries, London, London, 1963, p. 3.
London, The Leicester Galleries (Ernest Brown & Phillips), Catalogue of an Exhibition of Paintings, Pastels and Etchings by Edgar Degas, January 1922, p. 16, no. 28.
Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Danse et divertissements, 1948-1949, no. 56 or no. 69.
Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Chefs-d'oeuvre de collections françaises, 1962, no. 24 (dated circa 1875).
Special notice
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Further details
Theodore Reff has stated that, in his opinion, this work is by the hand of Edgar Degas.

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Lot Essay

Focusing on a single dancer in the midst of a performance, caught mid-step as she executes an elegant pose, Danseuse sur une pointe is a captivating example of one of Edgar Degas’s most enduring and favorite subjects: the ballerina in motion. From his first encounters with the ballet, the artist had been fascinated by the world of the dance, illustrating every step from the arduous hours of rehearsals that lay behind each production, to the last-minute preparations of the dancers as they waited in the wings, and finally, the sumptuous colors, lights, and movements that marked their performances on stage, as all elements of the production came together. The theme quickly became a central pillar within his oeuvre, with the artist producing approximately 1500 images of the dance over the course of his career. Created circa 1877, Danseuse sur une pointe illustrates the nuance and technical agility that characterized Degas’s images of the ballet at the height of his involvement with the Impressionist movement, as he married close observation with artistic imagination, to conjure the spirit and spectacle of a night at the theatre.
From the age of twenty, Degas had regularly attended the performances of the Paris Opéra, at which the corps de ballet were a central feature, offering him the opportunity to become intensely familiar with their choreography, costumes, traditions, and movements. Alongside his experiences within the sumptuous setting of the theatre, the artist frequented the many rehearsals and ballet lessons that took place behind the scenes, as the performers diligently practiced and prepared for their moment on the stage. This privileged access behind the curtain provided Degas with the time and proximity to study the intricacies of their movements at length, capturing the subtle shifts and adjustments in a pose that were often too fleeting to grasp in the whirl of the final performance. As the journalist François Thiébault-Sisson recalled: “Degas comes here [to the Opéra] in the mornings. He watches all the exercises in which the movements are analyzed, he establishes by successive features the various gradations, half-tempos and all the subtleties. When evening comes, at the performances, when he observes an attitude or a gesture, his memories of the morning recur and guide him in his notations, and nothing in the most complicated steps escapes him… He has an amazing visual memory” (quoted in R. Gordon and A. Forge, Degas, London, 1988, p. 167).
Though such performances were staged in the grand, opulent setting of Charles Garnier’s new Opéra building from January 1875 onwards, many of Degas’s images of ballerinas during the mid- to late-1870s retained traces of the corps de ballets previous home at the rue Le Peletier Opéra, which had been destroyed in a large fire in 1873. Drawing on his memories of the building, Degas placed a number of his figures and scenes within the lost auditorium and warren of rehearsal rooms, blending his exacting, close observations of the dancers with elements conjured by his own artistic imagination. Alongside this, Degas also experimented with a series of dynamic viewpoints in his compositions during this period, often portraying the dancers from angles which evoke specific locations within the theatre, whether from the main audience, the theatre boxes above, the orchestra pit below, or from the wings leading on to the stage. Indeed, the works from this period seem to trace the artist’s route around the theatre, as he moved from one row of seats to the next, approaching and retreating from the stage, capturing unexpected vantage points that opened up completely different ways of experiencing the performance. In Danseuse sur une pointe, the slightly elevated viewpoint suggests the viewer is seated at a height, perhaps looking down on the scene through a pair of opera glasses.
By focusing on a single dancer as she traverses the stage, Degas draws our attention to the inherent grace and athleticism of the ballerina herself, capturing the subtle nuances of her movements as she transitions through a complex step, her elegantly poised limbs strong yet supple as they reach outwards in a long, sinuous line. Capturing the taut energy that fills her body as she raises one leg off the ground, her balance carefully modulated as she tilts her torso forward, Degas conveys a sense of the intense control and discipline that underpinned each tiny movement in the dancer’s art. The angle of her raised leg, combined with the slight tilt of her other foot as her heel lifts off the ground suggests that Degas has captured the moment as she is about to raise herself upwards into a difficult “attitude en pointe, which could only have lasted for a second or two at most. It was his ability to capture such fleeting, almost invisible moments and deep knowledge of the architecture and flow of the dancer’s body between these steps, that led contemporary critics to celebrate the intense realism of Degas’s visions of the ballet—as the young Georges Rivière proclaimed to his readers in 1877, “After having seen these pastels, you will never have to go to the Opéra again” (quoted in J. Sutherland Boggs, Degas, exh. cat., Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1988, p. 274).
Danseuse sur une pointe is also characteristic of Degas’s work of the later 1870s in its combination of two very different types of execution, from the finely incised contour lines of the dancer’s head, arms, and legs, to the broad, swiftly sketched strokes of pastel and ink that define the scenery behind her. Subtle pentimenti remain visible on the sheet, tracing the movements of the artist’s hand as he carefully refined the central figure’s outline and position within the space, diligently capturing the volumes of her form in a mixture of pencil, pen and soft pastel. Paying attention to the details of her appearance, from the soft wispy material of a sleeve to the choker at her neck, Degas uses an array of different strokes to capture the contrasting textures of the dancer’s tulle skirt, her skin as it glows under the artificial lights, and her long, auburn hair cascading down her back. Illustrating his growing mastery of pastels at this time, this subtle play of color, demonstrates one of the defining aspects of Degas’s exploration of the material. “He found in his pastels a means to unify line and color,” John Rewald has written. “While every pastel became a color accent, its function in the whole was often not different from that of the Impressionist brushstroke. His pastels became multi-colored fireworks … [creating] a texture that glittered with hatchings” (The History of Impressionism, New York, 1973, p. 566).
In contrast, the soft, atmospheric rendering of the surrounding stage design provides just enough visual detail to convey a sense of the overlapping planes of the scenery flats behind the dancer, the basic components of the theatre’s decorative scheme which were raised from below the stage through specially designed slots. Eschewing any sense of the elaborate, highly decorative sets the Opéra Garnier was renowned for during the late nineteenth century, Degas instead only provides a vague sketch of the dancer’s surroundings, rendering the space in an intriguing mixture of autumnal hued and bright turquoise strokes of pastel and fluid, thin washes of sepia ink. In this way, Degas focuses our eye on the female dancer alone, omitting the architectural detail and scenic extravagances of the stage in favor of an appreciative study of the exquisite and delicate artistry displayed by the ballerina.

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