Although several members of the Impressionist circle painted the spectacles of the theater and the world of the Opéra, no other artist brought this environment so brilliantly to life as Degas. Degas was fascinated by all aspects of the ballet, both on- and off-stage, and illustrated every step from rehearsal to performance in more than fifteen hundred works in various media. As the contemporary critic Jules Claretie wrote in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, "The ballet dancer deserved a special painter, in love with the white gauze of her skirts, with the silk of her tights, with the pink touch of her satin slippers, their soles powdered with resin. There is one artist of exceptional talent whose exacting eye has captured on canvas or translated into pastel or watercolor--and even, on occasion, sculpted--the seductive bizarreries of such a world. It is Monsieur Degas, who deals with the subject as a master" (quoted in R. Gordon and A. Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, p. 183). Degas's images of dancers, moreover, are among his most innovative works. Richard Kendall has explained, "Degas increasingly used the subject of the ballet to break new compositional ground or cross pictorial frontiers, such as those between pastel and printmaking or between the depiction of public spectacle and private behavior" (in Degas and the Little Dancer, exh. cat., Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, 1998, p. 3).
The present pastel is an outstanding example of a work that stands at such a threshold. It depicts a group of three dancers in a provocative variety of poses. Two turn away, adjusting their costumes, while another faces forward, stretching her left arm, leaning against a wall for support. They seem a tangle of bodies, yet the turns of their heads, positions of their arms, and folds of their tutus create circular and internal rhythms. Portraying the dancers at half-length and close-up, Degas suggests an intimacy through proximity. The young girls, however, seem oblivious to any intrusion. Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge have written about a related image, "Nothing calls from outside the picture except the understanding that these are dancers. The distinction between working and resting, between formality and informality, so important in the earlier pictures of the ballet, has long since collapsed; just as distinctions between what is drawn and not drawn, form and not form, foreground and background have dissolved into a continuum articulated only by the lilting geometry of the cranked arms" (in op. cit., p. 218).
For Degas, part of the appeal of the world of dance was the endless opportunities for experimentation that it afforded him, allowing him to reposition dancers and rework settings. The present picture is exemplary in this respect. It belongs to a series of pastels in varying degrees of finish, executed in 1898-1899, all of which were purchased by Degas's dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel (Lemoisne, nos. 1274, 1344, 1352; figs. 2-4). These works are related both to three glass collodion negatives of dancers in the Bibliothèque Nationale, attributed to Degas, and to an oil painting, En attendant l'entrée en scène (Lemoisne, no. 1267; fig. 1). In the painting, four dancers (the closest of whom is missing from the present pastel) stand in the left foreground, occupying almost half of the composition. The curve of the wings mimics the lines of the dancers' bodies and opens to the stage beyond. On the right side of the canvas are three large forms, reminiscent of Claude Monet's haystacks beneath a cloud-filled and colorful sky, which repeat and complement the colors of the dancers' costumes. The painting represents a deliberately ambiguous space. Jean Sutherland Boggs has described the dancers as standing against "painted shrubbery" with "a view of fields with rounded trees and a rose-colored sky that is clearly neither landscape nor stage scenery" (in Degas, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, p. 573). What is likewise unclear is whether this painting preceded or followed the pastels. Boggs has suggested, "It seems probable that it was painted first, and that from the drawings he made for it, tracing, making counterpoofs, changing the poses somewhat, he found the poses to be used in the pastels" (ibid., p. 574).
Each of the pastels extracts a detail from the painting, concentrating on the poses and arrangement of the dancers. In the later years of his life, Degas increasingly incorporated tracing paper into his working practice, enabling him to revise and re-work his imagery, as in this sequence of pastels. The present example is closest in composition to the versions in Toledo (fig. 3) and a private collection (fig. 4), indicating that it may be an intermediary work. Like the Toledo example, it includes only three dancers, rather than four. Their poses are quite similar in the two pastels, especially the outstretched arm of the dancer on the left and the way that the central dancer reaches her left arm toward her right shoulder. Differences between these two images include the shift of perspective, slightly lower in the present example, and the turn of the middle dancer's head in the current pastel almost to full profile, a detail which re-appears in the version from a private collection (fig. 4). The most striking distinction, however, is the position of the central figure's right arm in the present work, which differs markedly from the other three versions. The vigorous contour lines on this arm bear witness to Degas's experimentation with this revised pose. Indeed, the strong outlines of the figures, the relatively light coloration, and certain indiscernible features such as the hands of the two dancers at the left suggest that Degas's principal interest in the present pastel was trying out new compositional variants.
As a group, these works exemplify the technical daring that characterizes Degas's late pastels. Anne Maheux has written, "What differentiates Degas's work in pastel from that of his predecessors and contemporaries is not what he actually produced, but the extent to which he pushed the medium during production In his hands [pastel] became the perfect vehicle for expressing his complex artistic temperament" (in Degas Pastels, London, 1992, p. 35). In the later part of his career, Degas often mixed pastel with other media to produce complex layers of shimmering colors, and he began to burnish the surfaces of his work and to use fixative to create overlapping areas. Although the present pastel displays a more subtle use of color and clearer focus on line than other examples from the same sequence, its surface remains richly dynamic. The background is a play of complementary colors, composed of underlying blues layered beneath pinks and reds. The latter colors extend through the dancers' torsos, binding them to the background, before the lines and pigments become looser and lighter, flowing into the pale pink tutus below. The spread of this darker pink integrates these areas of the composition and also draws attention to the remarkable variety in the artist's drawing, characteristic of Degas's pastel process near the end of his career.
The linear articulations of this image are also extraordinary. The vigorous vertical strokes in the upper left portion of the pastel complement the similar striations on the back of the closest dancer and on all three tutus. The upper right section of the image, by contrast, becomes an exercise in lyrical patterning. It shows broader areas of pink, likely created by working the surface with the broad side of the pastel stick, while the same color breaks into shorter, looser strokes in the bottom right corner of the image. Maheux has written, "By applying rapid strokes that skip over the surface, or by dragging the broad side of the pastel stick across the support, Degas deposited the pastel in discrete islands of color that have been compared to the fractured color of the divisionist painters Signac and Seurat" (ibid., p. 32). The play of blues and pinks on this side of the composition is particularly experimental, recalling Boggs's description of certain passages in Degas's late work: "The strokes of Degas's pastels become increasingly and contradictorily assertive, and can be perceived increasingly as abstractions, rather than definitions of form" (ibid., p. 14). The complexity of Degas' creative vision and his penchant for pictorial invention is certainly evident in the present pastel, an intricate work of art that portrays a liminal area between wings and stage, captures shifts in bodily position, and documents an idea in development.
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, En attendant l'entrée en scène, circa 1896-1898. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. BARCODE 25012910
(fig. 2) Edgar Degas, Danseuses, circa 1898. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. BARCODE 25012880
(fig. 3) Edgar Degas, Danseuses, circa 1899. Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. BARCODE 25012897
(fig. 4) Edgar Degas, Danseuses, 1899. Private Collection. BARCODE 25012903