During the final two decades of his working life, Degas markedly shifted the course of his art. He abandoned many of the quintessential motifs of his Impressionist years, such as the café-concert, the milliners shop, and the race track, and concentrated almost exclusively on the themes of the dancer and the bather. Berthe Morisot described Degas's late work as "more and more extraordinary," while Renoir remarked to the dealer Ambroise Vollard, "If Degas had died at fifty, he would have been remembered as an excellent painter, no more. It is after his fiftieth year that his work broadens out and that he really becomes Degas" (quoted in Degas: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 1996, p. 10).
The present pastel, which Lemoisne has dated circa 1894, depicts a dancer holding a fan in her right hand. Her left hand is lifted to her forehead, her eyes are closed, and her head is tilted back, a self-consciously dramatic posture suggesting weariness and fatigue. A dancer in a very similar pose, but with her hand resting on the back of her neck, appears at the center of a frieze-like composition from around 1880, La leçon de danse (Lemoisne, no. 820; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts). Degas was sufficiently intrigued by this figure that he isolated her in a large preparatory study, which was acquired by the celebrated American collector, H.O. Havemeyer (L., no. 823; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Michael Pantazzi has described this study in terms that apply equally to the present pastel: "The drawing is one of the few representations of a dancer in repose that gives the impression that the subject is reacting to the gaze directed toward her... She is young, but with the fan unfolded before her she has the manner of an adult perfectly aware of meanings she could convey with a movement of her wrist. If her left arm is in the familiar pose of the tired dancer rubbing her neck, there is more than a hint that she is striking an attitude" (Degas, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, p. 342).