Lot 33
  • 33

Edgar Degas

300,000 - 400,000 GBP
485,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Edgar Degas
  • Physionomie de criminel
  • signed Degas (lower right); stamped Atelier Degas on the reverse of the artist's board
  • pastel on paper mounted on the artist's board
signed Degas (lower right)
pastel on paper
48 by 63cm.
Executed circa 1880-81.


Estate of the artist (sold: Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, Atelier Edgar Degas, 2ème Vente, 11th-13th December 1918, lot 200)

Ambroise Vollard, Paris

Private Collection, France (sold: Palais d'Orsay, Paris, Tableaux Modernes. Collection de Monsieur D. et à divers amateurs, 22nd March 1979, lot 11)

Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London (acquired in 1979)

Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1979)

Thence by descent to the present owners


Paris, 35 Boulevard des Capucines, 6ème exposition de peinture des Impressionnistes, 1881, no. 18

Paris, Galerie Schmit, Degas, 1975, no. 20, illustrated in colour in the catalogue (titled Au tribunal. Deux prévenus)

Zurich, Kunsthaus & Tübingen, Kunsthalle, Degas, die Porträts, 1994-95, no. 161, illustrated in colour in the catalogue

Venice, Palazzo Grassi, 46. Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte. Identità - Alterità, 1995, no. II 136, illustrated in the catalogue

Omaha, Joslyn Art Museum & Williamstown, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Degas and the Little Dancer, 1998, illustrated in the catalogue

Paris, Musée d'Orsay, Crime et châtiment, 2010, no. 406, illustrated in colour in the catalogue


Un Domino, ‘Echos de Paris’, in Le Gaulois, 3rd April 1881, mentioned p. 2

Henry Havard, ‘L’Exposition des artistes indépendants’, in Le Siècle, 3rd April 1881, mentioned

Gustave Geffroy, ‘L’Exposition des artistes indépendants’, in La Justice, 4th April 1881, mentioned

'Echos du jour', in La Presse, 4th April 1881

Vernay, ‘Les Impressionnistes’, in Le Soir, 4th April 1881, mentioned

Gustave Gœtschy, ‘Exposition des artistes indépendants’, in Le Voltaire, 5th April 1881, mentioned

Gonzague-Privat, ‘L’Exposition des artistes indépendants’, in L’Evénement, 5th April 1881, mentioned

André Michel, 'Exposition des artistes indépendants', in Le Parlement, 5th April 1881, mentioned

‘Echos de Paris’, in L’Opinion, 5th April 1881, mentioned

Auguste Dalligny, ‘Les Indépendants: Sixième Exposition’, in Le Journal des arts, 8th April 1881, mentioned

Armand Silvestre, ‘Sixième Exposition des artistes indépendants’, in L’Estafette, 11th April 1881, mentioned

Enjoiras, ‘Causerie artistique: Exposition des artistes indépendants’, in L’Intransigeant, 12th April 1881, mentioned

'La Petite République française', in Petite Chronique, 14th April 1881, mentioned

Antony Valabrègue, ‘Beaux-Arts: L’Exposition des impressionnistes’, in La Revue littéraire et artistique, 15th April 1881, mentioned

Louis Enault, ‘Chronique’, in Moniteur des arts, 15th April 1881, mentioned

Palette, ‘Les Expositions paticulières’, in Paris-Moderne, vol. I, no. 4, 15th April 1881, mentioned

Charles Ephrussi, ‘Exposition des Artistes Indépendants’, in La Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, 16th April 1881, mentioned

Armand Silvestre, ‘Le Monde des Arts: Sixième Exposition des artistes indépendants’, in La Vie Moderne, 16th April 1881, mentioned

Gustave Geffroy, ‘L’Exposition des artistes indépendants’, in La Justice, 19th April 1881, mentioned

Elie de Mont, ‘L’Exposition du boulevard des Capucines’, in La Civilisation, 21st April 1881, mentioned

Henry Trianon, ‘Sixième Exposition de peinture par un groupe d’artistes: 35, boulevard des Capucines’, in Le Constitutionnel, 24th April 1881, mentioned

Comtesse Louise, ‘Lettres familières sur l’art: Salon de 1881’, in La France nouvelle, 1st-2nd May 1881, mentioned

Jules Claretie, ‘La Vie à Paris: Les Artistes indépendants’, in La Vie à Paris: 1881, 1881, mentioned

Victor Champier, ‘La Société des artistes indépendants’, in L’Année artistique: 1881, Paris, 1882

Joris-Karl Huysmans, ‘L’Exposition des indépendants en 1881’, in L’Art moderne, Paris, 1883, mentioned

Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et son œuvre, Paris, 1946, vol. II, no. 639, illustrated p. 361

The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886 (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. & M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, 1986, fig. 6, illustrated p. 342

Douglas Druick, 'La petite danseuse et les criminels: Degas moraliste?', in  Degas inédit, Paris, 1988, fig. 2, illustrated p. 226 (as dating from 1880-81)

Robert Gordon & Andrew Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, illustrated p. 119

Degas (exhibition catalogue), Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais; Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada & New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988-89, fig. 104, illustrated p. 210

Henri Loyrette, Degas, Paris, 1991, discussed pp. 387-394

Jean Sutherland Boggs & Anne Maheux, Degas Pastels, London, 1992, no. 30, illustrated in colour p. 99

Ruth Berson, The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, San Francisco, 1996, vol. I, no. 18, listed p. 326; vol. II, no. VI-18, illustrated p. 190

Harvey Buchanan, 'Edgar Degas and Ludovic Lepic: an Impressionist Friendship', in Cleveland Studies in the History of Art, Cleveland, 1997, vol. II, fig. 43, illustrated p. 84

Carol M. Armstrong, A Degas Sketchbook, 2000, fig. 16, illustrated p. 57

John House, Impressionism: Paint and Politics, New Haven & London, 2004, mentioned p. 138

Bernard Granger (ed.), La psychiatrie à l'épreuve de la justice, France, 2011, illustrated in colour p. 116

Catalogue Note

A remarkable instance of Degas’ innovative use of pastel, Physionomie de criminel shows Degas as a chronicler of contemporary events. On 27th August 1880 the artist witnessed the three month trial of three young men on a charge for homicide. The sensational details of the case became a prominent feature in the press at the time. The 20 year-old ringleader, Emile Abadie, had been previously tried and pardoned – because of his relative youth - for the murder of three individuals including an old newspaper seller whose pitch was close to Degas’ apartment. In December 1879 Michael Knobloch stepped forward and confessed to a separate murder and implicated Abadie and one other, leading to a sentence of life imprisonment on Devil’s Island which lay off the coast of French Guiana. Throughout the trial Degas produced sketches of the figures in court using black chalk to record their ‘criminal’ features.

Discussing the present work Jean Sutherland Boggs writes: ‘Émile Abadie and Michael Knobloch rise out of the courtroom dock, while the epaulette of a gendarme is visible at the left; their profiles are as compelling as any on a Renaissance coin. The profiles of the two twenty-year-old men are contrasted – Abadie, the leader, on the left, black-haired, swarthy, mustached, his features settled into the doltishness of the professional criminal; Knobloch, the informer, with an untidy but expressive mop of red hair, very pale skin, delicate features, red eyes, and a blue jacket, which could suggest the physiognomy of a clown or an actor. The contrast between the two men and the strength of characterization of the criminals have convinced some critics that Degas, a reader of La Nature and other scientific periodicals, could have been interested in the parallels between their faces and the drawings of apes and prehistoric man that were appearing in contemporary literature and in the dioramas of natural history museums. But Degas went further than a demonstration of evolution in his consideration – pitiless but not without some sense of empathy – of the characters of the two men waiting judgment’ (J. S. Boggs & A. Maheux, op. cit., p. 98).

However, Degas’ interest in these figures may have been peaked for a more curious and personal reason. Emile Abadie was a known associate of some of the very same dancers who posed for Degas including the sister of Marie van Goethem, the model for his extraordinary sculpture La Petite danseuse de quatorze ans - which was exhibited alongside the present work at the 6th Impressionist exhibition held at 35, Boulevard des Capucines in 1881. The present work and its counterpart of the same title but showing only one of the two figures (P.-A. Lemoisne, op. cit., no. 638) drew a great deal of interest during the exhibition and were commented on in most contemporary reviews of the show. A comparison between the vices supposedly evident in the face of the sculpture of the diminutive dancer and the brutish crimes ascribed to the male figures in the Physionomie de criminel became a point of heated debate. This coupling was re-created in 1998 in the exhibition Degas and the Little Dancer held at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, where the present pastel was hung alongside a bronze version of La Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (fig. 1).

Degas himself certainly regarded this pastel as one of his important works, and kept it in his private collection all his life. At the artist’s death, the work was sold at the historic auction of his estate, after which it was acquired by the legendary dealer Ambroise Vollard. From 1979 the work was ‘hidden’ in the collection of the current owners' family and away from the public eye. When in 1994-95 it was loaned to the exhibition of Degas portraits and the Venice Biennale, it attracted a great deal of attention from the public, critics and art historians alike.