No subject attracted Degas more profoundly than the ballet. It has been estimated that he made approximately 1500 drawings, paintings and sculptures of dancers, more than half his total output. Not surprisingly, it was his principal subject as a pastellist as well. Indeed, according to some critics, Degas saw a special affinity between the medium and the subject:
The fragility that continually led writers to discuss pastel in metaphors of fleeting beauty--"the powder of a butterfly's wings"--nourished Degas's bittersweet vision of the onstage metamorphosis of homely young dancers into illusions of beauty as perfect and short-lived as the butterflies to which he was fond of likening them. (D. Druick and P. Zegers, "Scientific Realism," in exh. cat., Degas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988-1989, p. 201)
As Degas grew older, his work became ever more bold and experimental, both from a technical and a compositional point of view; and some of his greatest images of ballet dancers were made after 1890, in the late period of his career. The present work is dated by Lemoisne circa 1903 and it depicts four dancers at rest backstage. Degas was fascinated with this composition and experimented with it repeatedly from 1890 onwards; thirty extant drawings and pastels record his interpretation of the compositon, including a sheet now in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (fig. 1). The one invariable in all these works is the seated dancer bending down at the right edge of the sheet; a second dancer seated immediately beside her is another constant, but Degas often varied her pose by altering the position of her left arm. Although the figure with one hand against the wall is also a regular feature (fig. 2), Degas treated the other two dancers with greater freedom; he frequently varied the pose of these dancers entirely, for example, by turning them in the opposite direction and creating a strong ceasura between the two pairs (fig. 3). Moreover, Degas sometimes altered the figures' backstage setting, occasionally depicting it as a dance studio. In those sheets, the backdrop behind the figures is a wall rather than stage-scenery; an early example of this is Le repos, quatre danseuses, from 1888-1890 (fig. 4). Indeed, the entire series originated in paintings of dancers resting at ballet class, such as La classe de danse, frise (Browse, no. 114 -- GET LEMOISNE #).
Clearly, one aspect of the composition that interested Degas was the interrelation of the dancers' poses. In the present sheet, the silhouettes of the figures almost interlock like the pieces of a puzzle, and the sequential movement forward and down of the dancers creates a highly graceful line; indeed, although the dancers are at rest, the lines of the composition suggest the flow of movement in dance. It is noteworthy too that in all the versions the figures are on a asymmetrical diagonal, heightening the sense of motion in the composition.
In the present work, the layers of pastel have been carefully built up over a preliminary drawing whose outlines resemble Danseuses (fig. 2). Degas applied pastel with greater density than any earlier artist, making for unprecedented chromatic vibrancy. As George Shackelford has explained:
There are several reasons for [Degas's] almost total switch to pastel after 1895. First, the pastel crayon is more easily controlled than the paintbrush, because the pigment is integral with the tool itself and is held directly in the fingers, becoming almost an extension of the artist's hand. Second, if the layers of pigment are properly fixed between the applications of the pastel strokes, the artist may work and rework the surface, building up complex layers of color; thus by working in pastel, rather than oil paint, Degas could satisfy his desire to create an elaborate picture surface built up of strokes of pure color with less fear of completely covering, and thus obliterating, a prized effect of tint or texture. He invented for himself a technique of superimposing layers of pastel, through the juxtaposition of partially covered pastel strokes, which created an impression of transparency analogous to superimposed glazes in oil painting. (Ibid., pp. 117-118)
And Jean Sutherland Boggs and Anne Maheux have commented:
Degas, like centuries of artists before him, searched for the ideal fixative that would not detract from the matte, luminous quality that he sought with pastel. Nevertheless it is in Degas's use of fixative--a secret formula given to him by Luigi Chialiva that purportedly did not adversely affect the velvety quality of the pastels with undesirable surface gloss, nor alter the colors--as a medium in itself, that he created a chromatic intensity and brilliance that was unprecedented... There is also physical evidence that Degas sometimes burnished the pastel surface, perhaps to effect a more intimate bonding of each new pastel layer to the ones below, but more probably because of the extraordinary effect achieved by forcing the medium in the interstices of the support to create "hollows" with each successive layer of pastel application. The cratered and pitted surfaces allowed the stippled color of earlier layers to shimmer throughout compositions. (J.S. Boggs and A. Maheux, Degas Pastels, New York, 1992, p. 32)
Effects of the kind described by Boggs and Maheux are abundant in the present sheet.
Degas was among the greatest colorists in the history of Western art. He was guided by an intuitive artistic vision, not by reference to systematic theory or objective reality. He would paint the same figure or figures repeatedly, obsessively varying the coloration in search of new solutions. Pauline, a model who often posed for Degas, recalled, "He painted his subject with different tones, endlessly varying the colors until one of the pastels pleased enough for it to be completed, leaving the others more or less unfinished;" and she remembered, "In one [drawing], the figure was dressed in green and stood out against a background of violet; in another, the background was yellow and the costume red, and in a third she appeared in a pink tutu against a ground of green" (quoted in exh. cat., Degas: Beyond Impressionism, National Gallery, London, 1996-1997, p. 103). The present pastel and the other sheets associated with it illustrate this process of endless search for aesthetic resolution.
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Danseuses vertes et jaunes, circa 1903
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
(fig. 2) Edgar Degas, Danseuses, 1897-1901
Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock
(fig. 3) Edgar Degas, Danseuses dans les coulisses, 1897-1901
Art Museum, St. Louis
(fig. 4) Edgar Degas, Le repos, quatre danseuses, 1888-1890