Lot 32
  • 32

Edgar Degas

18,000,000 - 25,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Edgar Degas
  • Danseuses en blanc
  • Signed Degas (upper right)
  • Pastel and gouache on joined paper
  • 20 7/8 by 25 3/8 in.
  • 53 by 65.2 cm


Cottier & Co., New York

Mr. & Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer, New York (acquired from the above)

Adeline Havemeyer B. Frelinghuysen (by descent from the above in 1929)

Mr. H.O.H. Frelinghuysen, New Jersey (by descent from the above)

Richard L. Feigen Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)

Acquired from the above by A. Alfred Taubman on January 15, 1981


New York World's Fair, Masterpieces of Art, 1939



H.O. Havemeyer Collection: Catalogue of Paintings, Prints, Sculpture and Objects of Art, Portland, 1931, illustrated p. 368

Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, vol. II, Paris, 1946, no. 494, illustrated p. 272

Louisine W. Havemeyer, Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector, New York, 1961, illustrated p. 259

Franco Russoli & Fiorella Minervino, L'Opera completa di Degas, Milano, 1970, no. 517, illustrated

Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, vol. II, New York & London, 1984, no. 494, illustrated p. 272

Robert Gordon & Andrew Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, illustrated in color p. 168

Alice Cooney Frelinghuyesn, Gary Tinterow, Susan Alyson Stein, Gretchen Wold & Julia Meech, Splendid Legacy, The Havemeyer Collection (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1993, no. 220, illustrated in the catalogue

Catalogue Note

In this sparklingly fresh work in pastel, Degas captures a group of four dancers in mid-flight as they step out from the wings. Their arms and legs extended in arabesque, their black neck ribbons, colorful headdresses and frothy white tutus are caught in the bright glow of the footlights. Before them stretches a broad expanse of empty stage and at the rear painted scenery flats vaguely suggest a landscape setting. Only rarely did Degas depict actual performances and here he gives us no precise information about the ballet or the dancers - their faces are hidden from view and no figure is seen in its entirety. However, the single dancer in a closely related pastel Dance on pointe: The Star, circa 1878 (The Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena) has been identified as Melina Darde who posed for Degas on a number of occasions [1].

Degas is known above all as the artist of the ballet.  No other artist has explored the subject so consistently and in in such depth. As many of his drawings reveal, Degas had a detailed knowledge of ballet technique acquired during many hours sitting, sketchbook in hand, in dance classes and rehearsals. We will probably never fully understand exactly what drove this lifelong obsession with the subject. He once claimed that he painted dancers because he liked the pretty costumes and depicting movement. Certainly, he was fascinated by the human figure in motion and in the ballet he found a particularly sophisticated and rarefied range of movements. 

The Opéra was central to Degas’s life. He went all the time to see performances at the old rue Le Peletier opera house in the 9th arrondissement and, after it burned to the ground, at the splendid Palais Garnier, the glittering crown at the top of the Avenue de l’Opéra that opened in 1875.  Like many upper-class Parisians of his day, Degas had a subscription at the Paris Opera. As an abonné, he became a member of an elite, all-male club that enjoyed special privileges such as the free run of the theater including the backstage areas, its maze of corridors, dressing rooms, dance classes, rehearsal studios, corridors and the foyer de dance or green room where the ballerinas would mingle with the often predatory abonnés.

The milieu of the dance and the Opéra was a thoroughly modern subject and was thus completely in tune with the avant-garde Impressionist group’s programme to jettison the past and focus on the everyday life of their own time.  But unlike other members of the group, for example Monet and Pissarro who were primarily interested in landscape, Degas preferred artifice to nature and the urban spectacle to the countryside.  He loved the effect of artificial, nocturnal light that he found not only in the theatre but also in Paris’s more plebeian cabarets and the café-concerts.

The striking immediacy that Degas achieves in Dancers in White is in large part due to the highly unusual angle of vision. Instead of the conventional approach of looking straight on to the stage from the auditorium that we might expect from a theatrical subject, he invites us to share with him the view from the wings at the moment when the dancers enter the stage. The resulting dramatic cropping and overlapping of the figures produces an almost cinematic truth to the moment. Yet, although it has the freshness of direct observation, we know that this seeming spontaneity was an illusion and the result of long reflection, careful preparation and the analysis of a pose through the numerous drawings made in his studio.  Degas also found inspiration on the example of earlier and different art forms, not in the realm of high art but in the popular journalistic illustration of the previous generation, in the caricatures of such brilliant graphic artists as Honoré Daumier (1808-79) who in his lithographs, which were extensively represented in Degas’s personal collection, played with the notion with on-stage and off-stage. And the bird’s eye view and cropped figures in the Japanese ukiyo-e prints by artists such as Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshige (1797-1858) that were so admired by Degas and his contemporaries, provided refreshing alternatives to the single-point perspective idea of composition that had prevailed since the Renaissance.

The quest for unusual viewpoints – looking down on the stage from a box or frequently the view from the wings – recurs consistently in Degas’s highly innovative ballet scenes of the late 1870s and early 1880s. Breaking with all conventional notions of composition, these novel and daring pictorial structures allowed Degas to conflate the glamour of the performance on stage with vignettes of the more prosaic world behind the scenes.  In the Metropolitan Museum’s The Rehearsal of the Ballet on the Stage, probably 1874, Degas gets below the surface of theatrical artifice.  A group of dancers rehearse under the director of the ballet master – quite possibly the formidable Monsieur Pluque – while others lean against the flats, yawn and stretch in those offbeat moments that Degas captures with such acuity. Sometimes it is the magic of the performance on stage that predominates as in The Star (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) one of his most famous pastels in which the prima ballerina is caught, center stage, in a flood of brilliant light while behind in the wings we glimpse the dancers waiting for their cue and the black-suited figure of an abonné observing the scene. Or in The Green Dancer, circa 1880 (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) the plunging viewpoint, presumably from a box, transforms the dancers into whirling pinwheels of dazzling colour.  And even in his last works, we find Degas still investigating the motif of dancers in the wings as in Four Dancers, circa 1899 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) where he presents them as a tight-knit group of intertwining figures

Much of the magic of Dancers in White derives from the powdery pastel medium. Degas began to work extensively in pastel in the 1870s and in the next decade it would become his principal medium. Popular in the eighteenth century (Degas was a great admirer of the eighteenth-century pastel portraitist Quentin de la Tour), it enjoyed something of a revival in the late nineteenth century. Pissarro and Monet, for example, both use pastel to add color to drawings, but Degas use of the technique was on an entirely different level.  In it, he found a perfect fusion of color and drawing. In his late pastels he used bold, even violent hues, but here the touch is lighter, the colors soft and shimmering. Degas has used a variety of strokes to achieve different textural effects: smudged and rubbed chalky white pastel to capture the diaphanous tutus lightly scattered with sparkling gold sequences, cross hatching for the play of light over the dancers backs and legs and the loosely sketched scenery, while vivid dabs of bright red, yellow, white and black define the floral headdresses.

Dancers in White has a fascinating history. Like The Rehearsal of the Ballet on the Stage, it was once in the great Havemeyer collection assembled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the sugar millionaire Harry Osborne Havemeyer and his wife Louisine. On Louisine’s death in 1929, a vast number of works were bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum including thirty-five paintings in addition to prints and the complete set of seventy sculptures by Degas. After meeting the American painter Mary Cassatt in Paris, Louisine, then aged about twenty-two, bought Degas’s Ballet Rehearsal, circa 1876 that Cassatt had pointed out to her probably on a visit to a color shop like Père Tanguy’s in Montmartre. This gouache and pastel over monotype is now in the Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City. This was Louisine’s first acquisition and as she later explained in Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector: ‘It was so new and strange to me! I scarce knew how to appreciate it, or whether I liked it or not, for I believe it takes special brain cells to understand Degas.’[2] She added ‘Five hundred francs was a large sum for me to spend in those days and represented many little economies and even some privations.’[3] It is not surprising then that a few years later the Havemeyers should buy the virtually contemporary Dancers in White ‘another [pastel] from Cottier and Company…several ballet girls in a row – vue de dos – also in white and with red flowers’.[4] Like Ballet Rehearsal, Dancers in White encapsulates Degas’s unique vision of the strange poetry and the pure enchantment of the dance.

[1] See Jill De Vonyar and Richard Kendall, Degas and the Dance (exhibition catalogue), The Detroit Institute of Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2003, pp. 208-210.

[2] Louisine W. Havemeyer, Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector, New York, 1961, p. 249.

[3] Ibid., p. 250.

[4] Ibid., p. 259.

Sotheby's would like to thank Dr. Ann Dumas, Curator, Royal Academy of Arts, for writing the catalogue essay for this lot.

Sotheby's would also like to thank Prof. Theodore Reff for his assistance with the cataloguing of this lot.