The present pastel is part of a well-known group of works that Degas made late in his career, depicting a trio of Russian dancers in a landscape setting. In his catalogue raisonné of Degas's oeuvre, Lemoisne documents fourteen images from this series: six pastels, including the present example (Lemoisne nos. 1181-1183, 1187-1188), and eight preparatory studies (L. 1184-1186, 1190-1194). With their vibrant color and vigorously drawn movement, the works represent "a swan-song in the long partnership of painter and dancer," according to Lillian Browse (in Degas Dancers, London, 1949, p. 64). Likewise, Richard Kendall has written, "The culmination of Degas's ambition, as well as one of the most unexpected departures of his late career, was surely the series of Russian Dancers. Conspicuously situated in the open air, or against highly naturalistic backcloths that make no reference to their stage settings, these triumphant pastels belong to the great tradition of European figure art" (in Degas: Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 1996, p. 278).
Until the publication of Julie Manet's journal in 1979, there was a great deal of uncertainty about the dating of the Russian Dancer series. Lemoisne dated the works to 1895 and speculated that Degas may have seen a troupe of Russian dancers in national costume at the Folies-Bergère that year (op. cit., vol. III, p. 686). Browse, on the other hand, proposed that Degas had been inspired by the first appearance of Diaghilev's ballet company in Paris in 1909, particularly by their performance of a folk dance known as the Gopak in Le Festin (op. cit., pp. 63-64). In her journal, however, Manet recounted a visit to Degas's studio in July 1899, during which the artist showed her three of the Russian Dancer pastels in progress:
M. Degas was a solicitous as a lover. He talked about painting, then suddenly said to us: 'I am going to show you the orgy of color I am making at the moment,' and then he took us up to his studio. We were very moved, because he never shows works in progress. He pulled out three pastels of women in Russian costumes with flowers in their hair, pearl necklaces, white blouses, skirts in lively hues, and red boots, dancing in an imaginary landscape, which is most real. The movements are astonishingly drawn, and the costumes are of very beautiful colors. In one the figures are illuminated by a pink sun, in another the dresses are shown more crudely, and in the third, the sky is clear, the sun has just disappeared behind the hill, and the dancers stand out in a kind of half-light. The quality of the whites against the sky is marvelous, the effect so true. This last picture is perhaps the most beautiful of the three, the most engaging, completely overwhelming (quoted in J.S. Boggs, et al., Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, p. 581).
The three pastels that Julie Manet saw are probably Lemoisne nos. 1182 (fig. 1), 1183 (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), and 1187 (Private collection). Jean Sutherland Boggs has suggested that the present work, with its quality of heightened abandon, may belong to a later group of Russian Dancers by Degas, based on the pastels of 1899 (ibid., p. 585; L. 1188 and 1190). According to Kendall, Degas's models probably came from one of the traveling troupes of ethnic dancers that performed regularly in the cabarets and vaudevilles near the artist's studio in Montmartre. Even closer to Degas's imagery are illustrations in contemporary books of the frenzied dances and exotic costumes of Russian and Balkan festivities, such as an engraving from Henri de Soria's 1897 Histoire pittoresque de la danse (fig. 2). More generally, the Russian Dancers provide evidence of Degas's participation in a wave of curiosity about folk art and a taste for Russian culture that swept through Paris around the turn of the century, perhaps inspired by the state visit of Tsar Nicholas II in 1896.
The Russian Dancer pastels also represent a stellar example of the distinctive shift in Degas's late working practice toward the sequence or series. Working almost exclusively by this time from models in his studio, Degas developed complex compositions of several dancers from numerous sketches of individual figures, rendered in charcoal on tracing paper. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, there is a large preparatory study for the left-hand figure in the present pastel (fig. 3), while a drawing in the Sara Lee Collection is a mirror-image of the dancer in the center (L. 1193). Kendall has concluded:
Individually and cumulatively, Degas's Russian Dancers fuse together many of the distinctive practices and themes of his late career: the progression from traced drawings, such as Les trois danseuses russes (Vente III, lot 286) to a sequence of compositional successors; the restatement of a single figure, for example the Metropolitan Museum's Danseuse russe (fig. 3) in more complex contexts, such as the Stockholm Les trois danseuses russes; the exploration of expressive color, from the descriptive hues of the Sara Lee Corporation's Danseuse russe to the explosive tints of Danseuses russes (L. 1188); the fascination with energy, whether the dignified rhythms of the pastel in the Lewyt Collection or the near-hysteria of Danseuses russes (L. 1190); and, above all, the obsessive, relentless inventiveness of the artist when confronted by the female form, his sticks of charcoal and his pastels, and the imperious demands of his picture (op. cit., p. 278).
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Danseuses russes, 1899. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
(fig. 2) The Khorovod and the Trepak (Russian Dances). From Henri de Soria, Histoire pittoresque de la danse, 1897.
(fig. 3) Edgar Degas, Danseuse russe, 1899. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.