The world of dance offered Degas seemingly limitless possibilities in the study and rendering of the human body as observed in a singularly perfect mode of expression. Well-practiced in the training and discipline of the ballet arts, lithe and agile women in the flower of youth moved with unsurpassed elegance and refinement, against the background of extravagant and fanciful sets. There was, within this same milieu, the opportunity for Degas to view his favorite subjects in casual, less glamorous moments, when the artist liked to take note of the young women as they were standing about or resting from their work, in situations which he found to be even more fascinating in their visual aspect than the actual performances themselves.
The present pastel drawing Danseuses records a scene of the latter kind, describing a sharply characterized moment in the daily life of a dancer behind the scenes, such as one that may have caught Degas' attention during a dress rehearsal at the Opéra de Paris. Degas drew this work during the mid-1890s, while entering the late phase of his career, when he was moving away from evocations of the dance in its formal grandeur and pageantry as public performance, and from there--as it were--into the stage wings, dans les coulisses, looking for novel and inventive ways to present the varied activities in the lives of the dancers as only a knowledgeable insider like himself could reveal. He now focused on the dancers as individuals in groupings of two, three or four figures, viewed close-up in unconventionally cropped formats, depicted in those more familiar and unstudied moments when he might finally "know the dancer from the dance," to borrow from the final line of a late poem by W.B. Yeats. Scenes such as that represented in the present Danseuses are revealingly informal snapshots of the real daily work at the Opéra; they display a vitality and immediacy that lend these late works their particularly modern sensibility.
Having reached the age of sixty, Degas attended performances at the Opéra less frequently than he had done as a younger man, although he continued to enjoy certain works thoroughly, such as Rossini's Guillaume Tell, that we know he may have seen a dozen times or more during his lifetime. Oddly enough, however, he neglected to renew his backstage pass, which for years had allowed him special access to the very behind-the-scenes situations which he now seemed most interested in depicting. This change in his habits is perhaps best explained by the fact that in 1890 Degas took over a large new studio at 37, rue Victor Massé in lower Montmartre. He made his new atelier something of a refuge from the world, as well as the base of operations from which he might undertake a reconsidered approach to his work, now more selective and inward looking than before. He set aside some of the cosmopolitan subjects that had earlier enriched the variety in his oeuvre, and instead now concentrated on only a few essential themes, chief among them the dance and the nude, both of which relied upon a more intensified, close-up and subjectively personal relationship between the gaze of the artist and the female model as his subject. As the basis for his new research he could draw upon a bank of images he had accumulated over a period of two-and-a-half decades, from sketchbooks, in countless drawings and paintings that he kept, and he could moreover rely upon his prodigious visual memory. When necessary, he might summon one or two models to his new studio, where they donned the appropriate costumes and recreated the experience of the practice rooms and rehearsals, in an environment which Degas might fabricate as he pleased, using combinations of figures and poses of his own devising.
The young woman on the left in the present Danseuses is clearly for Degas the center of attention. She stands front and center with her feet spread in the fourth position, while leaning forward with her arms akimbo and bent slightly backward, a limber stance which suggests her readiness to spring into step and take up her part. The degree of characterization and sense of purpose in her facial expression is, among Degas's pastel drawings of dancers during this period, unusually precise and individual; her intent demeanor is clearly the focal point in this composition. She has riveted her gaze on someone on stage, perhaps a dancing master who is giving instructions, or she may be following the rehearsal steps of a colleague--a friend or rival. Her stance reflects the knowing self-assurance of a talented and experienced professional. She seems like a spirited young woman who is capable, every now and then, of displaying a bit of attitude, just the kind of dancer whom Degas may have especially admired and found appealing.
"The dancer is only a pretext for drawing," Degas declared to the Irish writer and art critic George Moore (quoted in R. Kendall, Degas: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1996, p. 134). Degas was not downplaying in this statement the important role of the dancer and dance as his essential inspiration, or the delight that he took in treating this theme, the one for which he was then and is now most famous. He surely intended in these words rather to emphasize his love for drawing, the skill which he prized above all others in the practice of his craft. "The sheer labour of drawing had become a passion and a discipline for him," Paul Valéry observed of Degas during his late years, "the object of a mystique and an ethic all-sufficient in themselves, a supreme preoccupation which abolished all other matters, a source of endless problems in precision which released him from any other form of inquiry" (quoted in Degas Manet Morisot, Princeton, 1960, pp. 64 and 82-83).
Degas drew the present Danseuses in both pastel and charcoal, but while there is certainly more pastel on the sheet than charcoal, line and color contribute in nearly equal measure to the character and effect of the image. The clarity of the figures, the all-important sharpness of expression in the face of the left-hand dancer especially, are the product of Degas's adroitly gauged and telling line, to which the addition of pastel supplied the tonal effects necessary to describe an evocative spatial context for these figures. Spontaneous and free in its treatment, this pastel drawing is most remarkable for its airy, light-filled and transparent atmosphere.
Typical of Degas's serial working procedure at this time, Danseuses belongs to a network of drawings and pastels that depict the two women seen here. The idea for the left-hand dancer and the general forest setting appears to stem from two major oil paintings done in the period circa 1890-1893 (Lemoisne, nos. 1013 and 1014; the former, fig. 1). The present pastel drawing was probably done early in the sequence of its related works. Degas drew it directly on a sheet of wove paper, creating an image that may have been the model from which he made subsequent tracings that resulted in further variants of the image, in some works that are purely charcoal drawings (Atelier Degas, Second Sale, lot 275, and Third Sale, lot 316; the former, fig. 2), and in others where the traced image served as the under-drawing for more densely worked pastel compositions (Lemoisne, nos. 1015 and 1017; the latter, fig. 3). The pose of the left hand dancer appears to have been a favorite of Degas; during 1895-1905 he also modeled this stance into three wax sculptures, two of them nude and the third attired in a tutu (sculptures nos. 41, 51 and 63; Rewald nos. XXIII, LII and XXII respectively; no. 51, fig. 4). Degas returned to the idea of the present composition during the first decade of the twentieth century, and by inserting a third dancer between the two seen here, created another descendant line of related drawings and pastels (Lemoisne, nos. 1250-1253). Valéry has written: "He is like a writer striving to attain the utmost precision of form, drafting and redrafting, canceling, advancing by endless recapitulation, never admitting that his work has reached its final stage: from sheet to sheet, copy to copy, he continually revises his drawing, deepening, tightening, closing it up. At times he turns back to these trial sketches, adding colors, mingling pastel with charcoal... the prose, the line and movement are always implicit, essential, distinguishable, usable in other designs" (op. cit., p. 39).
Although Paul Durand-Ruel had been Degas's primary dealer since 1874, the artist also supplied works to Ambroise Vollard, beginning in 1894. Degas had begun to assemble during the early 1890s what would ultimately amount to a major collection of 19th century French painting, rich in the works of his contemporaries. He first acquired from Vollard some works by Manet, and then went to collect paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Vollard's records reveal that Degas usually paid him "in merchandise," by exchanging his own works for purchases. Vollard proved to be far more receptive to Degas's late pastels than did Durand-Ruel, who preferred the artist's earlier pictures and tended to instill a similarly conservative taste among his gallery's clientele. In 1914 Vollard published Degas: Quatre-vingt-dix-huit reproductions signées par Degas, the so-called "Album Vollard," which consisted mainly of late works the dealer had acquired from the artist. This folio proved instrumental in creating a market for these advanced, forward-looking pictures outside France, especially in Scandinavia, Germany and Russia. The present Danseuses, as noted in the cataloguing above, is illustrated as plate LXXII in the "Album Vollard."
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Danseuses (Pink and Green), circa 1890. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H.O. Havemeyer Collection, New York. Barcode: 28850953
(fig. 2) Edgar Degas, Deux danseuses debout, circa 1893-1898. Sold, Christie's New York, 9 November 2000, lot 403.
(fig. 3) Edgar Degas, Deux danseuses, circa 1893-1898. The Art Institute of Chicago.
(fig. 4) Edgar Degas, Danseuse habillée au repos, les mains sur les reins, la jambe droite en avant, original pigmented wax over cork model, 1895-1905. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.