Groupe de danseuses is one of four pastels that Degas drew circa 1898 showing three dancers advancing with arms upraised, set on a stage with scenery. The others are Lemoisne, nos. 1337-1339. This pastel is the largest of the series; the most finished and similar in composition is Danseuses roses (Lemoisne, no. 1337; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
With his eyesight gradually failing, Degas largely avoided descriptive detail in many pastels and drawings in his late period. Instead he chose to concentrate on the repetition and counterpoint of forms in the dancers' arms, bodies and legs, creating a wave-like, rhythmical design on the sheet. The figures of the dancers overlap and appear to form a single extended body in motion. In many of these multi-figure compositions, Degas usually settled on three dancers, creating a triptych of slightly altered repetitions of a single pose, as if to reinforce the importance of the dancer's gesture, and to foster the impression of movement.
In their text for the exhibition catalogue Degas and the Dance (Detroit Institute of Arts and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002-2003), Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall investigated the significance of a conversation between the American collector Louisine Havemeyer and Degas in 1903. Mrs. Havemeyer asked the artist, "Why, monsieur, do you always do ballet dancers?" Degas replied, "Because, madam, it is all that is left us of the combined movements of the Greeks" (quoted in exh. cat., op, cit., p. 234). What Degas meant becomes clear in the context of another statement he made, this time to the writer Henri Hertz, to whom he mentioned that his dancers "followed the Greek tradition purely and simply, almost all antique statues representing the movement and balance of rhythmic dance" (quoted in ibid., p. 233). Charles Millard demonstrated the influence of antique statuary on the numerous dancers that Degas modeled in wax in his study The Sculpture of Edgar Degas (Princeton, 1976, pp. 55-71). DeVonyar and Kendall detailed the significant relationship between Degas' depiction of the dance, especially in his late pictures, and contemporary illustrated texts on antique dance, Greek and Roman sculptures and the figures in wall and temple friezes accessible to Degas in the Louvre, and, not least of all, the painted silhouettes of dancing figures that decorated ancient Greek vases.
By the time Degas drew Groupe de danseuses and its related pastels, he had already modeled two sculptures that show the dancers' pose with upraised arms, Danseuse s'avançant, les bras levés (Rewald, no. XXIV), and Danseuse s'avançant, les bras levés, la jambe droite en avant (Rewald, no. XXVI). Using these wax figures as his models, Degas could easily repeat the pose on paper, and create minor variations in direction and position by shifting the placement of the sculpture. The wax figures were nude, leaving Degas free to invent a setting, costumes and colors in his pastels. The action of Degas' imagination--the expression of his own inner imperatives regarding color and form--on the basic rhythmical impulse in this pose, is characteristic of this late phase in his career. During this time, Degas developed a pronounced tendency toward abstraction of color and form, an approach that carried him beyond the realism of the 19th century, into the subjective modernism of the 20th century.