Now best known for writing the libretto to Carmen, in his day Ludovic Halévy (1834-1908) was famous as the author of short stories. His most successful story concerned the adventures of two young dancers at the Opéra, Virginie and Pauline Cardinal, their parents and admirers, all set in the risqué ambience of life backstage. The stories appeared throughout the 1870s and were published in a collected edition under the title La famille Cardinal in 1883.
It is thought that Degas initiated the project to illustrate the stories by way of monotypes reproduced in heliogravure. In the event the author was unimpressed with the results and the book only appeared thus illustrated long after both artist and author had died. Degas kept the original monotypes in his studio, from where they were subsequently sold in the fabled Vente d'Estampes in 1918.