Degas worked on the painting Le départ pour la chasse (Lemoisne, no. 118; private collection) in two stages, first around 1866, and then returned to it around 1873. He initially depicted a French hunt, but having possibly seen an English hunt when passing through Liverpool in 1872 and 1873 on his way to and from America, he gave the sportsmen the typical English costume of red riding coat and black top hat. He hoped his picture might appeal to the London market, and even used in this instance the formal aristocratic spelling of his family name, "De Gas", which he had otherwise dispensed with. In any case, the picture remained in Degas's possession until his death; it was afterwards sold in the first studio sale to Ambroise Vollard.
In preparation for this picture Degas relied upon studies he made outdoors and from English sporting prints; there is an ink drawing of men on horseback in Notebook 18, which the artist used in 1859-1864 (Reff, Nb 18, p. 13; coll. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris). In the same notebook there are studies for La fille de Jepthé (see note to lot 105). Degas also made drawings of two works by earlier artists that were on view in the Louvre: a tapestry based on a design by Bernaert van Orley in the series Les chasses de Maximilian, done around 1521 (in Notebook 18, p. 113), and a painting by Carle Vernet done in 1827, La chasse au cerf, le jour de Saint-Hubert en 1818.
The present drawing was done after the painting by Vernet, and shows the three horsemen who appear in the lower left corner. Other studies after Vernet are extent (Fourth studio sale, lots 233b and 240b, and a third drawing in the 1976 Jean Nepveu-Degas sale). In each example the riders were only lightly sketched in, while Degas gave special attention to the musculature of the horses seen in motion. In the Nepveu-Degas drawing the artist has surrounded his version after Vernet with quick sketches of horses and riders that were perhaps done outdoors. Degas developed the imagery in his riding compositions from examples done by earlier painters, as well as his own observations made from life.
Just as Degas used in his dance paintings throughout his career a repertoire of poses that he noted earlier in sketches done from life, in his racing scenes he also referred to previously made studies. He used the pose of the horse in the foreground of the present drawing in the racing scene Le faux départ, painted in 1869-1872 (Lemoisne, no. 258; coll. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven). In this composition Degas shifts the original context of the horse's posture from the hunt to the racetrack. In keeping with this new setting Degas further refines Vernet's pose by gracefully streamlining the contours of the horse, to emphasize the appearance of equine elegance and speed.
When offered in the second Degas studio sale, the present drawing was combined with another drawing (see lot 107) and displayed in the same frame. Purchased in this sale by René Degas, these two drawings have remained together ever since, and are now being sold by the same owner.