Executed in 1889, Deux danseuses évoluant is one of three primary studies Degas completed for the oil Danseuses sur la scène (Lemoisne, no. 987; fig. 1). The final painting depicts a group of five dancers in rehearsal, receiving direction from the ballet master whose diminutive frame appears at the extreme upper left corner of the composition. The present work focuses on the two center-most dancers standing with their arms outstretched in quatrième derrière, a pose that implies a preparation for movement or the completion of a series of steps. Drawn with swift, bold strokes of charcoal that define the lithe, strong outline of the dancers' frames, while white and pink pastel emphasize both volume and light of their tutus, Deux danseuses évoluant is an exquisite example of Degas' draftsmanship.
Together with the bather as the most revered theme of his oeuvre, Degas' depiction of the ballet is not only a natural choice for the artist drawn to themes of modern urban life, but in essence reflects his fascination with the study of the human figure in motion. His portrayal of dancers in the midst of exercise reveals the artist's interest in harmonious movements, and appeal for the orderly and rhythmic gestures that resulted from the dancers' long hours of arduous training. Degas often created his works in the studio entirely from memory and imagination, with only a few notebook sketches and drawings made from models to assist him. He clearly kept in mind the advice given to him by Ingres: "Make lines, many lines, either from memory or from observation of nature" (quoted in Degas, exh. cat, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York, 1960, p. 4).
Degas continually treated his portrayals of dancers not only with brilliance and originality but with insight and compassion drawing on scenes of both urban labor and pleasure that he witnessed in millinery shops, laundries, café concerts and the theaters of 19th-century Paris. Above all Degas was known as the l'amant des danseuses, for in his dancers he achieved images of transcendent beauty. "To create beauty out of urban dreariness was essential to Degas' naturalist conception of modern art" (quoted in exh. cat., Edgar Degas, Acquavella Galleries, Inc., New York, 1978, p. 4).
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Danseuses sur la scéne, 1889. Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon.