Pastel and gouache on joined paper
As one of the finest examples of Degas' pastels of ballet dancers, Degas' exquisite Danseuse au repos captures the hidden world behind the scenes of the Palais Garnier's spectacular ballet productions. Degas' profound sensitivity to the existential condition of this lone dancer is evident, singled out among the many young women of the company anticipating their turn or resting after an exhausting performance. One is struck by the picture's voyeuristic appeal, which engages us with this young women's sensorial experience at a particular moment in time. We can almost hear the rustle of her tutu's stiff gauze as it rises up behind her, brushing against the wall and the varnished wooden bench. And we can almost feel the heat of the other dancers seated next to her, as she turns away from them to stretch her tense limbs and point her toes with a professional's hard-learned discipline and concentration. Degas transports us into this rarefied scene, away from the pretense of a staged performance. No other artist of his time was able to present this exclusive atmosphere so convincingly or capture the often overlooked beauty of its informality. This spectacular picture exemplifies just how brilliant he could be at achieving this feat. As the contemporary critic Jules Claretie wrote, "he knows and depicts the backstage world of the theater like no-one else, the dance foyers, the essential appeal of the Opéra rats in their bouffant skirts" (J. Claretie, 1877, quoted in J. De Vonyar and R. Kendall, Degas and the Dance (ex. cat.), The Detroit Institute of Arts & The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002-03, p. 63).
Completed in 1879, four years after the Garnier Opéra house opened its doors to the public, Danseuse au repos evidences the artist's growing interest in portraying ballet dancers away from the spotlight and the stage. In his compositions of the late 1870s and 1880s (fig. 1) he goes about capturing them in informal situations, be they warming up at the bar, resting before exercise or, as here, relaxing after the rigors of training. Degas was a familiar figure backstage and at rehearsal by this point, and the members of the company, the parents of the young performers and the staff of the opera house knew him well. Although he had access to the many rooms of the grand opera palace and the dancers training there, it is not immediately evident that he is depicting a particular location or the verisimilitude of a given scene. Richard Kendall observed that in some of his compositions from the late 1870s, one might question "the dialogue between the thing observed and the thing made, between observation and drawing, knowledge and creative invention." However, Kendall goes on to explain that Degas "was actively concerned with the experience of real structures and surrounding at this historical moment," and that his commitment to depicting real people in their actual settings was underscored in a text by his friend, Edmund Duranty: 'Our vantage point is not always located in the center of a room whose two side walls converge toward the back wall... nor does our point of view always exclude the large expanse of ground or floor in the immediate foreground. Sometimes our viewpoint is very high, sometimes very low; as a result we lose sight of the ceiling, and everything crowds into our immediate field of vision' (quoted in J. De Vonyar and R. Kendall, Degas and the Dance (ex. cat.), The Detroit Institute of Arts & The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2002-03, p. 113-14).
Danseuse au repos is remarkable for the great quality of its richly worked surface and the detail of its vision and scope. Degas appears to have employed moistened pastels that have been applied with a brush and has further developed the bench and the areas of wall behind the figure with gouache to create a smoother finish, enhancing the 'solidity' of the dancer's environment. He also exercises a master's control over the spatial perspective here, depicting the dancer from on high and expanding her space by applying adjoining strips of paper to the central composition. This was common practice for Degas' most elaborate pastels. He would customarily rework these pictures as his vision for the finished work progressed and would not limit himself to the space allowed by one single sheet. We can see the great care he has taken here in continuing his composition onto another sheet, which he has expertly joined so that the final work appears seamless and entirely unified.
The present composition thematically relates to a number of major works from this period, particularly the pastels Deux danseuses assises sur une banquette from circa 1879 (fig. 2), Danseuse assise se massant la cheville gauche, circa 1877-79 (fig. 5), and L'examination de la danse, 1880 (fig. 3). But what is radical in the present picture is Degas' focus on the one dancer, whom he separates from the other members of her troupe. Degas allows us an insight to the psychological isolation of this young woman in a moment of rest, the significance of which might not otherwise be conveyed in an ensemble picture. For in reality, these young women were constantly being watched, if not by their instructors, fellow dancers or custodial mothers, then by the solicitous abonnés who would seek their company in quiet moments backstage. Aside from our own voyeuristic experience, we can assume that the dancer here is completely alone in thought, unaware, or at least unconcerned, with who is watching her now.
The young dancer in this pastel also bears a strong resemblance to the girl depicted in Degas' celebrated bronze Petite danseuse de quatorze ans of 1879-1881, with her gently retroussé nose and her delicate chin. Both this picture and the bronze have in common a great empathy and affinity with the dancer, as at once a bold and proud performer under the audience's gaze and an intensely private and sensitive individual once she is out of the spotlight. In capturing her in an intimate moment of repose here, Degas dares to transgress the magical aura surrounding the dancer, portraying her as a fatigable laborer above all else. He was subject to critical opprobrium for this breach when this and related works were seen in public for the first time. Viewed against the large oil La Salle de danse from circa 1885, in which Degas composes a sweep of dancers going through their exercises and in poses of relaxation – dancers who are evidently in their accepted milieu – the present pastel introduces a level of delightful ambiguity in the intimacy of its setting and the closeness and tightness of its framing of the figure.
The original frame, sold with the present work, is an example of the box type frame with a striped moulding on the outer perimeter, either finished in gold or painted white, designed by the artist himself. This white-painted version with the stripes picked out in gold, the classic 'Impressionist frame' which became the symbol of modernity, is of great historical interest.
This work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition, Edgar Degas. Intimacy and Pose, to be held at the Hamburger Kunsthalle from February 6, until May 3, 2009.
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