While Degas experimented with new techniques throughout his life, his interest in the ballet and theatre life as a subject matter never waivered. The ballet was a central feature of his oeuvre for over forty years, and he executed his works with the same discipline and precision he saw in the lives of the dancers. "The dancer could be seen as an incarnation of drawing. Line was the governing element of her achievement, the right, and wrong of what she was doing. Line was given by her limbs, her arms and legs, the centering of her body, her plomb. To draw a dancer's body was to re-enact through her limbs the terms of figure drawing itself, both as description and as expression" (R. Gordon and A. Forge, Degas, London, 1988, p. 176).
A major factor in the evolution of Degas' subjects at the turn of the century was the rapid transformation of life in Paris. Baudelaire, in his essay called "The Painter of Modern Life, "first published in Le Figaro in 1863, called on artists to capture both the ephemeral, the fleeting, and the eternal, immutable nature of modern, metropolitan life. New subjects, which included those marginalized by the process of modernization, demanded new painting techniques. When Charles Garnier's new Opéra opened in Paris in 1875 it became Degas' second home. As an abonné, he had access to the foyer de danse backstage and to rehearsals and auditions, giving him an opportunity to observe the dancers when they were at rest. Degas was fascinated by the dual nature of their lives and was more interested in the natural, unguarded gestures of the dancers at rest, as opposed to the more restrained and artificial movements of classical ballet.
In Danseuse a mi-corps se coiffant Degas gives the viewer an intimate glimpse of a slight, young dancer fixing her hair into place, standing in the wings before she goes onto the stage and into full view of her audience. This fleeting, personal moment is further emphasized by the skirt of another dancer that frames the right side of the composition; serving as a shield for the dancer to fix her hair behind. Degas creates a strong voyeuristic sense through the cropping of the figure on the far right, pulling the viewer backstage among the ballerinas.
By 1895 Degas was working almost exclusively in pastel. This was a medium that Degas, more than any other artist, was to make his own. "What charcoal is to Degas' line and structure, so pastel is to his color. With pastel, Degas could work directly and sensuously at the surface of his designs, stroking ochres and violets into a bather's skin, smudging the cool tints of a dancer's tutu against the warmth of her surroundings or encrusting stage scenery with the most fanciful patterns. Pastel invites flamboyance where charcoal imposes restraint, tactility in place of flatness, the hues of sensation rather than the abstraction of form" (R. Kendall, "The Late Pastels and Oil Paintings," exh. cat., Degas Beyond Impressionism, National Gallery, London, 1996, p. 254).
It has also been suggested that the key to Degas' late work was his newfound interest in photography. This can be seen in the photograph of a dancer formerly in Degas' collection (fig. 1). As with his use of sculpture to understand form, photography was a means of capturing dancers in certain poses and reworking these impressions into his drawings. Photography provided the most immediate method of capturing fleeting moments and, through the artist's hand and his pastel crayon, rendering them eternal.
(fig. 1) Photograph of a dancer from the Corps de Ballet, circa 1896. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.Barcode 23669420