In May 1901, Picasso left Barcelona for his second stay in Paris. He was then only nineteen, and the recent suicide of Carlos Casagemas, his companion from Barcelona during his first trip to Paris the year before and his closest friend, weighed heavily on his thoughts. Picasso stayed in his deceased friend's Paris apartment, which he shared with another friend from Barcelona, Pere Mañach, who paid the rent and was acting as his dealer and agent.
Mañach had arranged an amazing opportunity for the young painter: an exhibition of Picasso's work was scheduled to open at Ambroise Vollard's small gallery on June 24. Picasso had to put all distractions out of his mind and concentrate on his work, for he only brought about twenty paintings and drawings with him from Barcelona. Mañach encouraged his young protégé to desist from painting prostitutes and other low-life subjects that had previously preoccupied him, and to try his hand at more stylish and saleable belle époque genres. The critic and chronicler Gustave Coquiot, whom Mañach enlisted to write the preface to Picasso's exhibition catalogue, claimed that the artist painted as many as ten pictures a day. A more sensible number would have been two or three, still a prodigious feat for such a young painter. When the exhibition opened the catalogue listed sixty-four numbered and titled entries, mostly oil paintings, with a sixty-fifth entry comprised of an unspecified group of works on paper, including pastels and drawings.
The present pastel was done in Paris around this time, although it cannot be determined if Picasso included it in his Vollard show under the vague final catalogue entry. Picasso had employed pastel techniques to ravishing effect in works he had done in Madrid and Barcelona earlier in the year prior to his return to Paris. The difference in venue is detectable in the artist's subject matter. In Spain, he had drawn well-heeled ladies in their finery (Daix, nos. III.6-8, 10 and 12), while in Paris he turned to more demi-monde types, such as cabaret singers and dancers (Daix, nos. IV.9-12; the latter, La danseuse (Cancan), recently sold at Christie's, London, sale 2 February 2004, lot 8). The present subject is somewhat less risqué, although still intended to titillate with its show of shapely leg and decolleté. The young dancers of the Paris Opera were usually of humble origins and achieved their social status through liaisons with the well-to-do gentlemen who thronged to the ballet. It is unlikely that Picasso, then living on the slenderest of means, knew this world first-hand. He instead viewed it through the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas and Jean-Louis Forain.
Picasso's show at Vollard's gallery was a great success. John Richardson wrote that it "was a stunning bravura performance for a neophyte, and it included some brilliant tours de force. Mañach's insistence on salability paid off: the show was not only a succès d'estime; it was, in a modest way, a financial success. Well over half the items sold" (in A Life of Picasso, vol. I, 1881-1906, New York, 1991, p. 199).
But by that fall, the initial flush of success had worn off, and Picasso turned again to darker subjects--the death of Casagemas and the inmates of the women's prison of Saint-Lazare--that heralded his entry into the Blue Period.