Edgar DEGAS (1834-1917)
See also : Art on paper French sculpture Sculpture by painters Children Music and dance
Chronology : 1870-1879 1885 1920-1929 1927
The girls came for working. Before going on stage, they are waiting by lacing their shoes with manic gestures. When the show is over, they seek the suitable pose for relieving their physical exhaustion. In both moments, their slender and flexible bodies take a lanky attitude inconceivable for a fully grown woman.
The pastel enables a color harmony of the flesh, of the tutu and of the huge bow tied behind her belt in the stereotypical dancing fashion of that time.
1877 Danseuses en Blanc
2015 SOLD for $ 17M by Sotheby's
Degas is passionate about dance. He spends much time watching the ballerinas on stage and backstage. He does not admire their body but their flexibility, which is the ease of their limbs to reach extreme angles either in action or at rest.
Inspired by Ingres, Degas was a very good draftsman. He rediscovered pastel as a technique allowing the more vivid colors without impairing the quality of the drawing. Like the pre-impressionists, Degas executed his works in his studio from previous sketches. His spontaneity is in fact the result of a long meticulous work, like Constable's.
The dancer on pointe, pastel and gouache made in 1877, shows a ballerina leaning forward, one leg above the horizontal in a movement for which no effort is apparent. Her imbalanced attitude and the empty space in front of her bring to this graphic work an illusion of motion that is unprecedented in the history of art. The delicacy of the colors anticipates Lautrec.
The young dancer takes the same position in the same colors but now leading a group of four in Danseuses en blanc, pastel and gouache on paper 53 x 65 cm was sold for $ 17M by Sotheby's on November 4, 2015, lot 32T. The four girls play a simultaneous dance step in a bold composition in which no body is seen in its entirety.
Please watch the video shared by Sotheby's, also introducing the pastel of a nude offered in the same sale.
1879 Danseuse au Repos
2008 SOLD for $ 37M by Sotheby's
The "petits rats" are of great interest to him. These very young women do not have that need for sexual activity which masks the psychological authenticity of the prostitutes. Their lives are exhausting, in training and on stage, but the glory may reward their efforts.
Degas did not rule out any technique. In 1875 he was seduced by the use of pastel enhanced with gouache on paper. Unlike oil and watercolor, this opaque material very easily allows the many reworks desired by the artist throughout the execution of an artwork.
In 1880 at the 5th impressionist exhibition, Degas displays a pastel and gouache 46 x 67 cm titled Deux danseuses, probably made in 1879. After an exhausting exercise, two ballerinas in tutu are seated side by side on a bench. They ignore each other, only trying to catch their breath, the body leaning forward.
The artist painted in the same technique another work, 59 x 64 cm, titled Danseuse au repos. It was sold for $ 37M by Sotheby's on November 3, 2008, lot 14.
The girl on the right side in Deux Danseuses is in exactly the same attitude as before, with the left hand massaging the painful ankle and the other hand resting on the other knee. With her frail limbs and her upturned nose, this young woman has a resemblance to Marie, the model of the sculpture titled Petite danseuse de quatorze ans made by Degas around the same time. In a bold composition as Degas liked, her partner is almost entirely out of field.
1879 Miss Cassatt au Musée du Louvre
2002 SOLD for $ 16.5M by Sotheby's
On May 8, 2002, Sotheby's sold for $ 16.5M from a lower estimate of $ 12M a pastel 72 x 54 cm on 7 joined paper sheets, lot 13, featuring a standing Mary Cassatt and her seated sister in a gallery of paintings of the Musée du Louvre. Mary turns her back to the viewer and leans on her umbrella.
1880 Danseuses à la Barre
2008 SOLD for £ 13.5M by Christie's
Interested by their youthful flexibility, he captures them in a moment of unbalance, letting the viewer to imagine the following of the movement. Their costumes are an excuse for the bright colors of the pastel on paper. The pastel is also conducive to reworks up to the perfection required by the artist.
A lifelong bachelor, Degas was indeed not appealed by the bodies of his models. He took sketches in the Opéra and operated lengthy boring sitting sessions. He will gradually become a keen user of photography, a technique that matched his need for instantaneous effects.
Degas was not interested by the mind of his models, of whom he rarely displays the faces. The famous Deux danseuses of 1879, kept by the Shelburne Museum, is a demonstrator of Degas's misogyny.
When they are dancing or training in groups, they are all similar, often doing the same movement. He is not disturbed to trim them by the framing so that a global view of a girl is a synthesis of several figures.
The 1877 group of four from the Taubman collection, sold for $ 17M by Sotheby's in 2015, is a great example. Danseuse au repos, sold for $ 37M by Sotheby's in 2008, is a variant of the Deux Danseuses on which one of them is nearly completely trimmed, only leaving visible a shoulder and the left part of her tutu.
Danseuses à la barre, pastel, gouache and charcoal on paper 66 x 51 cm, features two ballerinas at training. They are nearly identical with a slight difference in the position of the arm. The profile of the girl on the right is trimmed between ear and eye. By the style, this piece is dated ca 1880. It was sold for £ 13.5M from a lower estimate of £ 4M by Christie's on June 24, 2008, lot 9.
1882-1885 Dans les Coulisses
2018 SOLD for £ 9M by Christie's
On February 27, 2018, Christie's sold for £ 9M an intimist and spontaneous scene titled Dans les coulisses, lot 20. Typical of the period 1882-1885, this 67 x 38 cm artwork is a pastel on linen, a rare combination even for this artist who was looking for unprecedented solutions.
A woman and a man stand side by side in the stage wings. The young woman holds a sheet of music : this simple information is enough to identify that she is a singer waiting before performing her role. She is focused on her observation of the stage out of field of the image. She does not care about the man who is yet very close to her. He is an abonné who has subscribed for his privilege to wander everywhere inside the theater.
The composition is bold, just as Degas loved it. The man who is somehow an intruder is half off the field. The very demanding artist was satisfied with its ambience effect. In 1889 it was included in the short list of fifteen highly significant examples from his art selected by Degas himself for a lithographic edition by Thornley.
Please watch the video shared by Christie's.
Edgar Degas’s ‘Dans Les Coulisses’ will star in our Impressionist and Modern Art evening auction on 27 Feb. Chosen by Degas as one of few works to be reproduced in his lifetime, this work has not been seen in public for 10 years #Impressionism #AuctionHighlight #Christies pic.twitter.com/i8ZOu2jLg3— Christie's (@ChristiesInc) January 29, 2018
2021 SOLD for $ 11.8M by Sotheby's
The dance was Degas's preferred theme for expressing textures and movement. This picture has been designed as an enchantment both by the attitude of the young ballerina and by the harmony and variety of light colors. She is viewed in full length in close-up, alone on stage, beginning her dance, the torso slightly leaning forward, with a highly elegant position of fingers and legs.
Danseuse jaune, a pastel of the same girl in exactly the same attitude and angle of view but with another background, dated ca 1885, was sold by Sotheby's for $ 8.7M on November 12, 1996. A significant difference is the ecstatic smile in the pastel of the next sale. These views display an empathy that departs from the images of young bodies tired by the performance.
They could be portraits of Marie, whom Degas met for the first time in 1879 when she was still a teenager in an unfinished growth. During the 1880s Degas was keen to follow her transformation and her progress. The pretty and delicate young woman, 20 years old in 1885, used to serve as a model for the artists.
#AuctionUpdate: Once in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for nearly 70 years, Edgar Degas’s Danseuse brings $11.8 million. This dazzling work on paper is a fully worked & richly pigmented composition of Degas’s most iconic motif: the Parisian ballet. pic.twitter.com/a9D9acVVHa— Sotheby's (@Sothebys) May 13, 2021
1900 Trois Danseuses
2015 SOLD for $ 12M by Christie's
In his oil paintings the misogynist artist used to display women with ugly faces damaged by vice or hard labor. L'Absinthe, painted in 1875-1876, is a great example. His pastels of ballerinas and bathing nudes had a commercial purpose, and he most often preferred hiding or blurring the faces.
Made ca 1888, Avant l'entrée en scène (deux danseuses) features two aging ballerinas in the backstage. One of them holds a fan in an overall stiff attitude that contradicts her role in a ballet. Both profile faces are visible. This 60 x 34 cm pastel was listed and withdrawn by Christie's on June 21, 2011.
Trois danseuses, painted ca 1900, features two standing women in colored tutu in the foreground plus a third one half hidden by them. They are viewed from the back. The positions are varied but clumsy. Two of them bend the body and raise an arm while the leading woman turns her head, making visible an unfriendly profile of the face.
This pastel laid down on board 65 x 52 cm was sold for $ 12M from a lower estimate of $ 6M by Christie's on May 14, 2015, lot 16C.
Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (posthumous)
In 1879, Marie draws the attention of the artist. Aged 14, this "petit rat d'Opéra" is an ungrateful teenager, far from physiological maturity, with awkward gestures, but already attracted to her future career as a dancer (which ended before it was to start when she was fired from the dance school for repeated absences).
Degas was a painter, draftsman, sculptor, photographer, printer, but his great art was oil and pastel. He used drawing and sculpture like sketches.
On his first sculpture of Marie, 74 cm high, the girl is naked. This makes sense since the artist wants to study the movements of her body. This is not enough for him. He realized another larger statue in painted wax, a little over 1 m, in the same position, with the unconventional idea to equip it with a dancing dress in cloth and real hair. By its realism that does not reject some ugliness, this portrait of an adolescent girl is indeed a key work of modern sculpture.
As in his many pastels of ballerinas, Degas captures a moment of life which is neither from the performance nor relaxed, which may be a reverie or an exhaustion.
After much hesitation, he shows his Petite danseuse de quatorze ans at the Impressionist exhibition of 1881. After this unique event and until his death in 1917, no sculpture of the master will be exhibited.
Degas had considered that his waxes were too fragile for preparing bronze casts. In 1918 his heirs contracted Adrien Hébrard to produce limited bronze editions of all seventy-four wax sculptures found during the posthumous inventory.
Hébrard worked often on request from collectors. The first complete set of bronzes was finished in 1921. This activity made the founder busy up to 1938 including a total 29 casts of the Petite Danseuse.
Petite danseuse de quatorze ans was edited by Hébrard in bronze with muslin skirt and satin hair ribbon.
2022 SOLD for $ 42M by Christie's
This copy with brown patina was cast in 1927 by Hébrard in commission from a US collector. It is fitted with the usual muslin skirt and satin hair ribbon of that model.