Dancers account for forty of the seventy-four sculptures that Degas modeled in wax and are known today. Among the dancers are a group of eight works which show the figure posed in various positions of an arabesque--these are the most exquisitely balanced and poised of Degas's dancers, and Grande arabesque, deuxième temps is widely considered to be the most graceful and appealing of them all. This sculpture was a favorite of Louisine Havemeyer, whose Degas holdings constituted a major part of her famous collection. When in October 1921 she acquired the entire A series of the newly cast posthumous bronze edition, the Hébrard foundry books record that she additionally purchased the present cast of Grande arabesque, deuxième temps, this one from the G series--it was the only Degas sculpture in her collection of which she possessed two casts. Under the terms of her will dated 18 August 1922, Mrs. Havemeyer bequeathed all but two of the A series casts, amounting to 69 sculptures in all, including the Grande arabesque, deuxième temps, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York where they may be viewed today. The present G cast of Grande arabesque, deuxième temps remained in her family collection and is offered here by her heirs.
It was quite natural that Degas should be drawn to and concentrate much of his effort on the positions relating to the ballet arabesque. Alison Luchs described the arabesque as "a moment of balance in which the dancer reaches a peak of tension between submission to gravity and escape from it" ("The Degas Waxes," Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1991, p. 196). The arabesque epitomized the beauty of the ballet, in which the dancer arrived at the moment of utmost perfection, when movement suddenly and briefly yielded to a sublime stillness of balance and purity of form, at the very extreme of which the human body was capable. The beauty and poise of the arabesque was a supreme test of a dancer's talent, skill and training. Great difficulties had to be overcome, personal limitations transcended, all to achieve a feat whose success was largely gauged by the degree of apparent ease and grace which the dancer had demonstrated in its execution.
The arabesque in French ballet had been evolving into new forms even as Degas was modeling his sculptures. Prior to mid-century the term "arabesque" in dance had been derived from its use in painting and architecture, having been inspired by Moorish and Arabic floral graphic design, and referred to picturesque arrangements of dancers in groups. "In Degas's time... the danced arabesque had changed profoundly," Susan Glover Lindsay has pointed out. "As part of the reforms to modern theatrical dance [Carlo] Blasis devised new arabesques for individual dancers based on classical reliefs and paintings. His most radical variant departed from dances's canonical verticality to explore horizontal or oblique positions, with dramatic new technical, aesthetic, and expressive possibilities. These movements lowered and extended the traditional attitude into longer, undulating lines that demanded extraordinary strength, control and equilibrium... Though considered infinitely variable then as now, the arabesque was often defined, by at least mid-nineteenth century, as leaning the upper body forward and extending the gesture leg backward... The expressive power and technical and formal strengths that the arabesque gained from Blasis's changes made it the consummate pose of romantic ballet and its star, the danseuse" (op. cit., exh. cat., 2010, p. 196).
The titles by which we know Degas's dance sculptures originated at the time of their casting in bronze by the Hébrard foundry and do not necessarily conform in a precise manner to the terminology employed by dance specialists. The present Grande arabesque, deuxième temps does not in fact represent a grande arabesque as it would have known to ballet masters and dancers. Lindsay has closely analyzed the pose seen here, and explains: "The dancer's raised gesture leg in Degas's wax falls somewhere between the lower demi-position and the grand position (horizontal or higher), suggesting that Degas might have represented a transitional phase in the movement... The head turned to the right, sending her gaze obliquely over her extended arm, invokes, in terms of theatrical dance, her focus on an audience there, even sending them a smile, a rarity in Degas's sculpture... As the sculpture demonstrates, in profile its long diagonal lines undulate downward from the head to the foot, moving in counterpoint to the arms. Yet the sculpture goes beyond to provide bold symmetry, animated by the turn of the head, from every viewpoint" (ibid., p. 207).
The numbering of the positions in Degas's arabesques--premier, deuxième and troisième temps--likewise does not actually correspond in its specifics to the positions as the dancers and their instructors would have referred to them. This numbering was instead intended to denote a basic sequence of movement, progressing from an upright pose (bronze no. 18; Rewald XXXV; fig. 1), continuing in a position in which the dancer leans forward and first balances on one leg (deuxième temps, the present sculpture), and culminating in the precariously balanced pose--troisième temps--of the daring arabesque penchée (bronze no.60; Rewald XXXIX; fig. 2), in which the raised leg has been elevated to an oblique angle beyond the horizontal. Daphne Barbour has observed that "As a group, the arabesques can be compared to Eadweard Muybridge's stop-action photography with which Degas was clearly familiar and may have served as inspiration for other sculptures" (op. cit., exh. cat., 2009, p. 354). These sculptures are in this way each related to the others, and Degas is believed to have completed them as a concerted series in the years 1885-1890.
Degas used the dance sculptures as models in his drawings, in preparation for pastels and paintings, to supplement his studio sessions with live models. These works enabled him to study action captured at a certain moment in time from various viewpoints. The British painter Walter Sickert described how Degas "showed me a little statue of a dancer he had on the stocks [which Alison Luchs has linked to the present Grande arabesque, deuxième temps] and--it was night--he held a candle up and turned the statuette to show me the succession of shadows cast by its silhouettes on a white sheet" (op. cit., 1917, p. 185).
In its sculpted form the arabesque was as demanding an exercise in the knowledge and skills of the artist as it was for the dancer in performance, a parallel that Degas no doubt appreciated, as he undertook the challenge of overcoming the limitations inherent in his medium in order to translate the beauty of arabesque into a work of art that succeeded as sculpture and was also convincingly truthful to its subject. Not all Degas's essays in wax met with success, and the surviving works probably represent only a portion of many more numerous attempts, as he proceeded by means of trial and error, and through the sheer persistence of his efforts. Pointing to one of his arabesques in sculpture, Degas declared to the painter Georges Jeanniot, "you wouldn't believe what that work has cost in research and rage; balance, above all, is so difficult to achieve" (quoted in op. cit., exh. cat., 2010, p. 197).
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Grande arabesque, premier temps, 1885-1890. Sold, Christie's, New York, 6 November 2001, lot 35.
(fig. 2) Edgar Degas, Grande arabesque, troisième temps, 1885-1890. Sold, Christie's New York, 13 November 1996, lot 2.