pastel and pen and ink over charcoal on paper
The Leicester Galleries, London (acquired by 1922)
Alfred Strölin, Paris
Mercedes Santamarina, Buenos Aires
Private Collection, Buenos Aires
Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1996
London, The Leicester Galleries, Catalogue of An Exhibition of Paintings, Pastels and Etchings by Edgar Degas, 1922, no. 28 (titled Danseuse)
Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Danse et divertissements, 1948-49, no. 56 or 69 (titled Danseuse)
Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Chefs-d'œuvre de collections françaises, 1962, no. 24 (titled Danseuse)
The Burlington Magazine, vol. XI, no. 226, London, January 1922, illustrated p. XV
Cecil Porter, Six Decades at the Leicester Galleries, London, London, 1963, p. 3
Depicting a dancer during a performance, Danseuse sur une pointe is a remarkable example of Degas' early pastels on the ballet theme. 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.
The present work dates from the early stage of Degas' career, when he frequented ballet performances and based his paintings and drawings of dancers on direct observations of them. The new Paris Opéra, designed by Charles Garnier, was inaugurated in January 1875. Danseuse sur une pointe was probably inspired by one of the ballets at the Opéra, demonstrating the artist's close study of the dancer's movement, and capturing her as she balances her body on one foot or 'sur une pointe', in a pose similar to that of the arabesque. This elegant pose, with an outstretched arm and leg, captured the artist's imagination, and he explored it in a number of compositions, both during a studio rehearsal (fig. 1) and on stage (fig. 2).
As Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall observed: 'Degas' principal subject in Garnier's new auditorium was neither the audience nor the ballet, but the perceptual and psychological territory where they met [...] Degas used a wide repertoire of devices to signify that he - and by extension, we - are situated at a certain level in the theater and at a measurable angle to the performance, and not like the dancers of Garnier's imagination, "in a kind of dream"' (J. DeVonyar & R. Kendall, Degas and the Dance, New York, 2002, p. 95). While in his later pastels Degas depicted the dancers from a drastically closer viewpoint, eliminating the background, in the present work he establishes a more formal relationship between the performer and the observer.
Rendering the stage decor in an abstracted manner, the artist suggests a theatrical setting, while at the same time focusing the viewer's attention on the performer and the details of her hair and costume. The free, spontaneous execution of the background of the present work is contrasted with the more linear style with which the dancer is depicted, a style that characterised the early stages of Degas' career, emphasising the grace and elegance of the ballerina. The artist delighted in observing the movement of the woman's body and the effect of the costume and the theatrical setting that transformed ordinary girls from the lower classes into what he called the 'priestesses of grace'.
Unlike his later versions of ballet dancers, mainly executed in the studio and demonstrating the artist's primary interest in colour and the spontaneousness of style, the present work renders both the costume and the scenery with a degree of details that would have allowed the contemporary audience to recognise the particular performance. After the early 1870s Degas stopped including the titles of ballets in his titles, as 'he would have been aware that his patrons were a small and often informed group, including many individuals who shared his evenings at the Opéra and bought his pictures because they knew this world, enjoying the frisson of identifying a favourite dancer or a moment from a recent production. Some of the collectors were also followers of the latest developments in painting, who delighted in the novelty of Degas' perceptions, and that combination of ambiguity and precision that was to become his hallmark' (ibid., p. 158).
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