Professor Theodore Reff has confirmed the authenticity of this drawing.
Degas's drawings of dancers far outnumber those of any other subject in his oeuvre, and evolved in practice and technique over a period of more than forty years. Those that are signed by the artist, such as the present work, are rarer still. Perhaps the most prized of all are those that date from the early 1870s; they were mostly executed in pencil, before Degas turned in the 1880s to charcoal almost exclusively as his preferred medium for working on paper. These early drawings are related to the backstage and ballet class paintings, from the period 1872-1877, which constitute the artist's first concerted effort in featuring the ballet. The early pencil drawings possess a special delicacy, refinement and poise. A critic wrote of Degas's skill as a draughtsman, as early as 1874: "What precision there is to his drawing!" and another proclaimed: "Degas will take the place Ingres holds now" (quoted in R. Kendall, Degas: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1996, p. 66). The later charcoal drawings reflect a shift in Degas's pictorial concerns, toward a more expressive, accentuated and arabesque effect, with an increased emphasis on rendering light and shade.
Danseuse debout, vue de dos and other drawings of this kind are related to, as Jill DeVonyer and Richard Kendall have pointed out, "One of his major creations... a formidable sequence of some twenty oil paintings of the ballet classroom that are both strongly individual and compellingly linked... The majority of works were laboriously prepared, emerging from an intricate process of drawing from life and subsequent transfer to canvas, often followed by modification of the image on the painted surface" (Degas and the Dance, exh. cat., The American Federation of Arts, 2002, p. 80). The present drawing does not directly correspond to a figure in one of these paintings, although a similar dancer with her back to the viewer, but with arms lowered is observable in the mirror of Le Foyer de la danse, circa 1871-1872 (Lemoisne, no. 297; fig. 1). A related figure can be seen standing before the window in Ecole de danse, circa 1874-1878 (Lemoisne, no. 399; The Shelburne Museum). Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge have studied a series of pencil drawings that Degas executed in 1872-1873:
"Here the draughtsman is at his sharpest pitch. He observes soberly; without the slightest flourish but with an even pressure of attention that misses nothing. He draws with a wonderfully restrained grace, dry, crisp, economical. He focuses steadily on direction and proportion, the geometrical underpinning to every shape. He never generalizes. The crucial observation is always the à plomb, the vertical alignment of the head and the load-bearing foot. Often Degas will rule a vertical line upward from the heel of the foot [visible in the present drawing]... so that the whole figure is seen against the length of the foot. It is characteristic of his mind that these firmly and openly stated lines were seen as part of the drawing and their information was accepted alongside the information given by the freehand lines" (Degas, New York, 1988, p. 175).
The dancer's back was of special interest to Degas, and features in a number of his studies from life. His friend Georges Jeanniot recounted meeting one of Degas's dance models. The artist commented: "Here's a pretty one... a real find--and a wonderful back. Show Monsieur your back..." (quoted in ibid., p. 179). The graceful vue de dos seen here shows marks, as do numerous others of Degas's dance studies, of small smudges of paint, a reminder that these sheets are a painter's working drawings, executed as a means to a specific end, the completion of a major oil painting. Degas was attentive to even the smallest detail in his drawings; here he made the notation "peigne en écaille blonde," referring to the blonde tortoise-shell comb in the dancer's hair. The poet and essayist Paul Válery described Degas as "the most reflective, the most demanding, the most merciless draughtsman in the world" (Degas, Manet, Morisot, Princeton, 1960, p. 23).
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Le Foyer de la Danse, circa 1871-1872. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Havemeyer Collection.
Barcode: 2800 1973