Degas's fascination with dancers and the ballet lasted all his working life, and it is by far the most important of all his subjects. "After Degas, the world of the ballet has never been the same; his observations have proved so just and so telling that it has been nearly impossible for any later painter to tackle the subject without appearing to imitate him" (I. Dunlop, Degas, New York, 1979, p. 56).
From the age of twenty, Degas held a subscription to the thrice-weekly performances of the Paris Opéra, at which the corps de ballet appeared. It was also customary for the abonnés to have access to the foyer de danse backstage and to rehearsals and auditions, thus providing Degas with the opportunity to freely observe the ballerinas.
Writing about one such occasion the journalist François Thiébault-Sisson recalled "the rehearsal was in full sway: entrechats and pirouettes followed one after the other with vigorous regularity; in a laborious tension of all these young and supple bodies, and the spectacle was so curious to a young novice like myself that I was utterly absorbed in silent contemplation from which I would not have emerged for a long while if my companion had not suddenly nudged me 'You see that thin fellow over there, the one with the cylindrical head and beard, sitting in the corner on a chair with a drawing-pad on his knees? That's the painter Degas...' Degas comes here in the mornings. He watches all the exercises in which the movements are analyzed, he establishes by successive features the various gradations, half-tempos and all the subtleties. When evening comes, at the performances, when he observes an attitude or a gesture, his memories of the morning recur and guide him in his notations, and nothing in the most complicated steps escapes him...He has an amazing visual memory" (see R. Gordon and A. Forge, Degas, London, 1988, p. 167).
After thirteen years of construction, Charles Garnier's new Opéra opened in January 1875. The building became a second home for Degas, and its opening seems to have inspired him to study with even greater depth than before, the life and training of the ballet dancers. At this time, Degas' style began to change: "His pictures became simplified, the number of figures were reduced from those of the early ballet pictures with ten or more dancers, to works with three or four at most...An important preoccupation was to find ways of capturing movement, whether it be the pirouette of a dancer or the gait of a thoroughbred. Movement, he believed, gave beauty to people and objects...It was the movement of the female figure which most delighted him and which drew him to the ballet" (I. Dunlop, op. cit., p. 131).
"The dancer became his means of ruthlessly exploring the human figure. His probing analysis of her bodily tensions produced a seemingly limitless vocabulary of poses...When asked by Mrs Louisine Havemeyer, a friend of Mary Cassatt and an avid collector of his works, why he painted so many ballet dancers, he replied, 'Because madam, it is only there that I can rediscover the movement of the Greeks'" (R. Pickvance, Degas 1879, exh. cat., National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1979, p. 18).
Danseuses vertes is closely linked to Danseuses roses (L.486), c. 1878 (see figs 3 and 4), now in the Norton Simon Foundation, Pasadena. Richard Thomson comments "That Degas conceived of images as decorative pairs is apparent from two pastels...Green and Pink Dancers. Not only do they echo each other's poses and harmonize with each other's colours, but they are of almost identical size" (R. Thomson, op. cit.). Other such pairs include Groupe de danseuses (Jupes rouges) (L.1372), c. 1900, now in The Burrell Collection, Glasgow, and Trois Danseuses (Jupes jaunes) (L.1376), c. 1900, now in the Cincinnati Art Museum.
"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 à plomb. To draw a dancer's body was to renact through her limbs the terms of figure drawing itself, both as description and as expression. How often in his drawing of dancers the line of an arm or a leg will soar out from the body, cutting out a shape that has no meaning that can be translated, but presents itself simply as a measured claim upon space?" (R. Gordon and A. Forge, op. cit., p. 176).
A pose very similar to that of the ballerinas in Danseuses vertes can be seen in several bronzes by Degas (Rewald no.s XXXIV, XXXV, and LXVI, see fig 1), cast from wax statuettes after his death. Indeed, Degas often made such wax models to assist in the composition of his pastels and oil paintings. Richard Kendall has explained that this helped to increase Degas's understanding of a three-dimensional form, and could also quite literally take the place of a living model (R. Kendall, 'The Role of Sculpture', exh. cat., Degas Beyond Impressionism, National Gallery, London, May-Aug. 1996, p. 254). Degas himself commented "The only reason that I made wax figures of animals and humans was for my own satisfaction, not to take time off from painting or drawing, but in order to give my paintings and drawings greater expression, greater ardour and more life. They are excercises to get me going; documentary, preparatory motions" (from the memoirs of François Thiebault-Sisson, 1921, see R. Kendall, Degas by Himself, London, 1987, p. 246).
"Degas's spontaneity is closely accompanied by great discrimination in composition, attention to formal detail and graphic definition. That which is incidental is stated without touching on what is irrelevant, while visual and pictorial forms are brought into agreement...The central area of a picture is often planned from its edges inwards and left open...It would be wrong to assume that the casual effect produced by snatches of action and fragments of figures is merely the outcome of a facile approach to the theme. On the contrary, Degas cultivated immediacy in order to strip away all pretence...The artist constantly stressed that visual perception could only be rendered in fragmentary fashion. The observer is called upon to extrapolate beyond the picture in order to grasp what has not been stated" (G. Adriani, Degas: Pastels, Oil Sketches, Drawings, London, 1985, p. 67).
Danseuses vertes not only encompasses Degas's favourite subject, but was also executed in pastel, the medium which he, more than any other artist, was to make his own. "What charcoal is to Degas's line and structure, so pastel is to his colour. With pastel, Degas could work directly and sensously 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, op. cit., p. 89).
Danseuses vertes was included in an exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, London in 1905, where it hung beside works such as Repasseuse à contre-jour (L.685), c. 1876, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, La chanteuese de café-concert (L.772), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Mary Cassatt au Louvre: La Galerie de Peinture (L.583), 1885, now in The Art Institute of Chicago.
The present work was also chosen for the 1924 exhibition held at the Galeries Georges Petit in Paris. Other works displayed included Danseuse au bouquet saluant (L.474), c. 1877, La classe de danse (L.341), c. 1873-6, and Répétition d'un ballet sur la scène (L.340), 1874, which are all housed in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.