Lot 19
  • 19

Edgar Degas

900,000 - 1,200,000 USD
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  • Edgar Degas
  • Trois danseuses
  • Stamped Degas (lower left)
  • Pastel, charcoal and chalk on paper
  • 17 5/8 by 19 5/8 in.
  • 44.8 by 49.8 cm


Atelier Edgar Degas (sold: Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 2ème Vente, July 2-4, 1919, lot 341)

Mary & Leigh Block, Chicago

Thomas Gibson Fine Art, London

Acquired from the above on May 30, 1995


Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art; Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art & Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 100 European Paintings and Drawings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Leigh B. Block, 1967, no. 69, illustrated in the catalogue

London, Thomas Gibson Fine Art Ltd, 19th & 20th Century Masters and Selected Old Masters, 1994, n.n., illustrated in color in the catalogue


Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Paris, 1946, vol. III, no. 999bis, illustrated p. 581

Catalogue Note

Executed circa 1889, Trois danseuses is a remarkable example of Degas’ favorite subject, that of a group of ballet dancers preparing for their 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 the opera, café-concerts and the circus. Degas was attracted to the spectacle and excitement of public entertainment and found an endless source of inspiration in the ballet, sketching the performers from nature. In this manner he was able to study both the natural unguarded gestures of dancers at rest and the stylized movements of classical ballet. From his earliest treatments of this theme, Degas showed interest not only in the public spectacle of ballet performances, but also in the more informal situations around them: the behind-the-scenes world of the rehearsal room or the dance class, the dancers’ preparation and tension prior to a performance and the more relaxed, casual moments that followed afterwards. In the same way as Degas often captured horses and riders in the more unofficial situations before or after the race, his ballet dancers are usually depicted away from the spotlight of the stage, in the more informal moments such as warming up before a performance or resting after the training. Degas would often meet his models backstage after the ballet, sketching them while they stretched, relaxed or collapsed with exhaustion from their performance. In his later years, he would invite some of the lesser-known dancers to his studio, making them pose for long periods of time and sometimes repositioning them to suit the eccentricities of his compositions.

Degas' behind-the-scenes participation at the Garnier Opera performances allowed him access to details of the dancers' practices that were otherwise unseen. By the late 1870s and into the 1880s he attended both the performances and rehearsals, and he was well known among the members of the company. With such privileged access he could render them with his pastels in the midst of a staged production and in their more intimate moments when their movements were wholly unchoreographed. As Richard Kendall and Jill De Vonyar state: "no one observed more closely than Degas...the process by which 'common' Opéra dancers were transformed—through makeup, stylized costumes, and the distance between the proscenium and the audience—into 'priestesses of grace.' Much of his own art was concerned with this metamorphosis: research has increasingly revealed the extent to which his performance images were rooted in firsthand experience of the state rather than in his painterly imagination" (Degas and the Dance (exhibition catalogue), The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit & Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 2002-03, p. 157).

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, where he often photographed them. 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. Degas' depictions of 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. Degas' constant experimentation with movement and grouping of dancers' bodies, also extended into experimentation with various media, including colored paper, and techniques of execution.