Degas presents in this small painting on paper an ingenious image that depicts a visual dialogue, strikingly modernist in its conception, between the artist and his subject. The setting is the racetrack, and as Degas paints a female onlooker, his subject returns his attention. She raises to her eyes a pair of field glasses (in French a lorgnette or jumelles), and curiously scrutinises the artist, catching him in the very act of observing her. In this moment of ocular flirtation, the glasses coyly mask the woman's face and identity, adding to the mystery of the occasion.
This intriguing subject fascinated Degas, and he treated it at various times over the course of a ten-year period, from 1866 to 1876. During this time Degas painted many of his finest racing scenes, as well as numerous studies of jockeys, horses and onlookers, as seen here. The earliest version of this subject is likely Femme à la lorgnette (fig. 1; Lemoisne, no. 179). Lemoisne dated this work circa 1868, while the curators of the 1988 Degas retrospective have ascribed it to 1866. The latter have also pointed out that the subject of this painting - like the present work executed in huile à l'essence (thinned oil) on paper - is possibly the artist's sister Marguerite De Gas Fèvre, who was then pregnant with her first daughter Celestine. A summary outline of her figure also appears in a pencil drawing that shows Manet standing at her side (the artist's studio, second sale, lot 210 (1); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). These figures were probably intended for eventual insertion into a racetrack scene.
The present study probably followed a couple of years later, when Degas was making numerous racetrack studies in mixed media on paper. The woman holding the field glasses, as well as the two jockeys seen behind her, appeared in the early version of the oil painting Aux courses (les jockeys) (L., no. 184; fig. 2), a composition which Degas reworked over a period of years. Lemoisne dated this painting circa 1868, as Jean Sutherland Boggs similarly dates the present study (in exh. cat., 1998, op. cit. p. 88). The small, barely legible illustration of the painting Aux courses (les jockeys) in Lemoisne shows the composition in a later, still incomplete and incoherent state. The dealer Ambroise Vollard, who purchased it out of the artist's studio third sale in 1919 (lot 36), had attempted to restore the picture to its original appearance, but it was not until 1959 that X-ray photographs clearly revealed the initial composition, and the overpaint was finally cleaned off. The painting was sold in this restored state at Christie's New York, 18 October 1977, lot 77, illustrated as shown in fig. 2. The relationship between the present study and this racing scene is clear: the mysterious woman is likewise clad in a dark, elegant dress, and the two jockeys from the study are also seen in the painting, where they are visible on the left side, but with their positions as depicted in the study reversed. The male figure standing next to the woman in the painting Aux courses (les jockeys) - not included in the present study - who was recognisable as Manet in the above-mentioned pencil drawing, has been identified as Degas' brother Achille.
Degas reprised the subject of femme à la lorgnette, in full-length figures, also executed in huile à l'essence on paper on board, on three further occasions. Two were done circa 1869-1872: La lorgneuse (L., no. 268; Burrell Collection, Glasgow) and Lyda (L., no. 269). Degas inscribed the first name of the model on the latter picture, offering a tantalising clue to the identity of the lady with field glasses. One writer has speculated that she is actually Lydia Cassatt, Mary's Cassatt's sister, an idea that other commentators have not accepted. Whoever she is, Lyda made her final appearance in Femme à la lorgnette (La dame aux jumelles), painted circa 1875-1876 (L., no. 431; fig. 3; Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden), this time in a cream-colored dress with elaborate lace trim. The brief outline of a standing man appears to her left, a reminder of Degas' continuing intention to include the figure as one of a couple in his racing compositions. Apart from her initial inclusion in the painting Aux courses (les jockeys), the lady with field glasses survives only in small-scale works which she dominates as the center of attention. Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge have pointed out that 'Degas tried unsuccessfully to fit her into the foreground of a composition of the races; but she is far too potent to play a subsidiary role. By her direct stare, her symmetrical frontality, the severe pyramid of her dress, and the menacing concealment of her face, she becomes one of his most aggressive images. His preoccupation with looking and with all that looking could mean is for once stated in a way that is not oblique, but unerringly direct. The power of looking and the power of concealment are linked in a single image' (op. cit., p. 120).