Degas had been captivated with the ballet throughout his career, but in the last decades he became less interested in capturing onstage life and more focused on the individual gestures and movements of the dancer, especially in moments of rest or otherwise informal poses. The present study reveals the artist's masterful draftsmanship and his desire to focus on the subtle details of the figure in space. The main figure stands with her feet turned out and hands on hips in a deliberate pose. A second dancer stands behind her, partially obstructed by a scrim, which the artist has abstracted into a simple, vertical line and negative space. The artist has employed heavy contours and vertical hatching in the limbs and torso of the figures; through these reworked lines, Degas further accentuates the gravity of the dancers' bodies. Juxtaposed against this is the diaphanous skirt of the primary figure, its openness serving as a counterbalance to the more heavily retraced areas of the sheet.
The present drawing is one of the primary studies for the highly finished pastel, Deux danseuses, décor d'arbres (Lemoisne, no. 1018), now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. In it, Degas brings out more details in the folds of the tutus and forest-like backdrop, with layers of irridescent pastel replacing the monochromatic charcoal. High-keyed tones of orange dominate the palette, setting off the costumes, scrim, and stage floor against the cool blues and greens in the shadows and backdrop.
The composition of Deux danseuses debout can be located in a series of more than twenty other drawings and sculpture. Degas began by doing simple nude studies of the figures singly and in groups. As he worked, he added costumes and compositional details such as the diagonally-falling scrim in the present drawing. Around this time, the artist also produced drawings with three dancers in similar poses, which evolved into a separate series. The sculpture, Danseuse habillée au repos, les mains sur les reins la jambe droite en avant (Rewald, no. LII), also relates closely to the present drawing as the pose is similar to that of the primary dancer. That the motif evolved into many works of various media demonstrates the artist's fascination with the established composition and the infinite possibilities that it afforded.
The present drawing is unique within the series because it links the initial charcoal studies with the more highly finished pastels and sculpture. The study also represents the artist's dedication to the medium of charcoal, particularly later in his career. As Richard Kendall notes "tracing was never used by Degas to make identical replicas of his pictures, but to disseminate a suite of endlessly nuanced variations and some radical transformations of his original subject. Degas traced freely rather than pedantically, exploring the fluidity of the charcoal line to vary a pose or heighten a contour... Despite their internal diversity, however, we are left with an inescapable sense of art that breeds from itself, of a process of self-reflection and contained fissile energy that turns to the outside world for nourishment but ultimately generates its own motive force" (R. Kendall, op. cit., p. 82).