Trois danseuses jupes violettes is one of the finest of Degas' late pastels depicting ballet dancers during a performance. The artist's lifelong interest in dance developed in the 1860s, when as a young man he regularly attended the ballet and other performances such as opera, café-concerts and the circus. Degas was attracted to the spectacle and excitement of live entertainment and found in it an endless source of inspiration, sketching the performers from nature. In this manner he was able to study both the natural unguarded gestures of dancers at rest and the stylised movements of classical ballet. Degas was fascinated not only by the public spectacle of ballet performances, but also by the more informal situations around them: the behind-the-scenes world of the rehearsal room or the dance class, the dancers' preparation for and tension before a performance, and the more relaxed, casual moments that followed afterwards.
Throughout Degas' career, his treatment of this subject underwent a radical metamorphosis. In the later decades, the artist's visits to the ballet became less frequent and he began working increasingly from models in his studio in the rue Victor Massé. Whereas visits to the ballet had only afforded Degas fleeting demonstrations of the dancers' choreographed movements, the privacy of the studio presented him with the opportunity to pose a model in his preferred way. It was at this time that he began to work in series, a practice which opened up a wealth of creative possibilities. In the late 1890s, he executed several versions, including the present work, of two or three dancers performing, with their arms raised, seen against what looks like a landscape, but is understood to be a stage set.
In his pastels of the 1890s, Degas' focus moved away from the linear, towards a new interest in colour, and the present work is a magnificent example of his new found freedom of expression, allowing the artist to transform a ballet scene into a firework of strong, bright colours. This spontaneity of execution is also reflected in his technique of adding strips of paper to the top and bottom of the sheet. Degas often employed this practice in his mature works, adapting the size and shape of his support in such a way as to suit the emerging composition. Discussing his pastels from this period, Richard Kendall wrote that 'Degas extends the spectrum even more dramatically: Three dancers in purple skirts [the present work] presents a saturated gauze of pastel, combining warm rust and blue-violet in the dancers' legs and interwoven pinks and greens on the stage floor' (R. Kendall in Degas, Beyond Impressionism (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 100). The artist used a similar palette in the oil Danseuses bleues (fig. 3), now in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Degas developed his complex compositions of several dancers from numerous preliminary studies of isolated figures. These studies were often executed in charcoal on tracing paper and then transferred onto a further sheet, where they were combined with other figures to form a group. The dancers were often first drawn nude and subsequently 'clothed' in the worked up pastels with tutus, shoes and other dancing paraphernalia, examples of which Degas kept in the studio. From these initial studies Degas would construct a dramatic and vivid scene without leaving the privacy of the studio. Furthermore, he often studied various poses of the dancers in sculpture, and used them as a basis for his compositions in pastel and oil. Discussing this relationship, Richard Kendall wrote about the present work: 'In Three dancers in purple skirts we see this progression from sculpture to drawings, from line to the pyrotechnical colours of pastel as it reaches sensuous fulfilment. Begun as a charcoal study from Dancer moving forward, arms raised [fig. 4], here studied in several positions as Three dancers had been, and finally enriched with a near-tropical setting, Three dancers in purple skirts exemplifies both the versatility and the transforming alchemy of Degas's late craft' (ibid., p. 256).
The success of Degas' late pastels of dancers and their importance in the artist's oeuvre was acknowledged by John Rewald: 'In his [...] important pastels of dancers and nudes, he was gradually reducing the emphasis on line in order to seek the pictorial. Resorting to ever more vibrant colour effects, he found in his pastels a means to unite line and colour. While every pastel stroke became a colour accent, its function in the whole was often not different from that of the impressionist brush stroke. His pastels became multicoloured fireworks where all precision of form disappeared in favour of a texture that glittered with hatchings' (J. Rewald, The History of Impressionism, New York, 1973, p. 566).
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