Lot 31
  • 31

Edgar Degas

3,000,000 - 5,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Edgar Degas
  • Avant la course
  • Signed Degas (lower left)
  • Oil on paper laid down on board in a cradled panel
  • 11 5/8 by 18 1/4 in.
  • 29.5 by 46.5 cm


Goupil-Boussod et Valadon, Paris (acquired from the artist on June 8, 1888)

Paul Gallimard, Paris (acquired from the above on August 5, 1889)

Alex Reid & Lefevre (The Lefevre Gallery), London (acquired from the above by 1927)

M. Knoedler & Co., New York (acquired from the above on March 23, 1927)

John Hay Whitney, New York (acquired from the above on August 28, 1928)

The Greentree Foundation, New York (bequeathed by the above and sold: Sotheby's, New York, May 5, 2004, lot 20)

Private Collection, Europe (acquired at the above sale and sold: Sotheby's, New York, November 4, 2009, lot 41)

Acquired at the above sale


Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Exposition d'oeuvres de l'école Impressionniste, 1903, no. 14

Brussels, La Libre Esthétique, Exposition des peintres Impressionnistes, 1904, no. 27 (titled Chevaux des courses)

London, New Gallery, Eighth Exhibition of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Graveurs, 1908, no. 69

Brighton, Public Art Galleries, Exhibition of the Works of Modern French Artists, 1910, no. 111

Paris, Manzi, Joyant & Cie., Exposition d'art moderne, 1912, no. 114 (titled Chevaux de courses. Le Départ)

Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst, Art français du XIXe siècle, 1914, no. 69

Montreal, Art Association of Montreal, Masterpieces of Painting, 1942, no. 66

London, The Tate Gallery, The John Hay Whitney Collection, 1960-61, no. 18, illustrated in the catalogue (dated circa 1881-85)

Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Manet and Modern Paris, 1982-83, no. 12, illustrated in the catalogue (dated circa 1881-85)

Washington D.C, National Gallery of Art, The John Hay Whitney Collection, 1983, no. 12

Paris, Galerie Nationales du Grand Palais; Ottawa, National Gallery of Art & New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Degas, 1988-89, no. 237, illustrated in color in the catalogue (New York only)

Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Degas at the Races, 1998, no. 72, illustrated in color in the catalogue 

New York, The Frick Collection, Six Paintings from the Former Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney on Loan from the Greentree Foundation, 2000-02


Louis Vauxcelles, "Collection de M.P. Gallimard" in Les Arts, Paris, September 1908, illustrated p. 26 (titled Les courses)

Arsène Alexandre, "Exposition d'art moderne à l'Hotel de la Revue" in Les Arts, Paris, August 1912, illustrated pl. IV

James B. Manson, The Life and Work of Edgar Degas, London, 1927, illustrated pl. 47

Camille Mauclair, Degas, New York, 1941, illustrated p. 90 (titled Race Track)

Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Paris, 1946, vol. II, no. 679, illustrated p. 381 (as dating from 1881-85)

Franco Russoli, L'Opera completa di Degas, Milan, 1970, no. 697, illustrated p. 119 (titled Avant le départ)

John Rewald, "Theo Van Gogh, Goupil and the Impressionists" in Gazette des Beaux Arts, Paris, February 1973, listed p. 89 (titled Courses)

William H. Johnston, The Nineteenth Century Paintings in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1982, discussed p. 134

John Rewald, Studies in Post-Impressionism, New York, 1986, listed p. 89

Robert Gordon & Andrew Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, illustrated in color p. 80

Sara Campbell, Richard Kendall, Daphne Barbour & Shelley Sturman, Degas in the Norton Simon Museum, 2009, illustrated in color p. 180

Catalogue Note

Degas’ exploration of the world of the racetrack and steeplechase developed in tandem with his survey of other aspects of the modern world, notably the world of the dance. In his depictions of equestrian subjects as in his many scenes of the ballet and opera, Degas moved from the precise delineation of complex arrangements of figures in space in the first half of his career to a much broader, more atmospheric approach in the latter half. In works such as Avant la course, Degas employs a fine brush and applications of thin layers of pigment to capture the musculature of the animals, the sheen of their coats and the details of the jockeys and their silks.  

Although the artist was not an active participant himself, the popular pastime of equestrian sports fascinated Degas and featured prominently in his work throughout his career. The subject of horses and riders offered the artist a challenge both as a documentarist of modern life and as a technician of visual imagery. Here, Degas depicts the jockeys riding their horses out to the track in preparation for the race. The attitude and movement of each horse seems to respond and flow into another – from the long curved neck of one animal with its head hung down, to the upright stance of another with its ears pricked forward. Each jockey’s pose on his mount is similarly in contrast and harmony with the other. While the whole is a superb study in graceful rhythms of the riders and their mounts as set against the distant horizon line and the diagonal rush of tree trunks, the composition also draws inspiration from Degas’ lifelong study of the works of Antiquity and the Old Masters. Early in his career, the artist frequently sketched copies after great works of the past, and his early studies of the friezes of the Parthenon as well as heroic paintings of equestrian processions from the Renaissance era, specifically influenced the compositions of these long, horizontal canvases. Degas was fascinated with the ritual, repeated gestures and physical performance of the horses and riders, just as he was with dancers, and each subject served as a framework for his endless formal inventions and historical quotations.

John Rewald wrote on this work as follows: “The actual subject of this painting is not horse racing; Degas only occasionally depicted the action of a race or the picturesque activities and people associated with them. Unlike de Dreux and Gericault, both reportedly fine equestrians, Degas probably could not ride… (and) had no taste for their energetic and romantic portrayals.  The main reason that Degas repeated these representations of horses is identical to that for his other recurring subjects: he wanted to express in pictorial terms the shapes and motions of bodies engaged in the performance of habitual activity" (J. Rewald, The John Hay Whitney Collection, 1983, p. 40).

The horizontal format of this frieze-like composition had more often been used for studies of dance classes. Jean Sutherland Boggs has observed that with regard to the frieze compositions of the Dance and their application to the equestrian subjects, “it was natural that Degas should think of horses and riders, particularly as he was becoming more immersed in the mysteries of landscape and natural light” (Degas at the RacesOp.cit., p. 155). In a discussion of the present work and the two directly related oils in the collections of the Clark Art Institute and The Walters Art Gallery respectively, Boggs goes on to comment that “For [this] the third version of the subject he used a panel somewhat wider than the other two and obviously relished the space it gave him on both sides of the group of riders. He emphasized this further by adding the tiny figure of a horse and rider in the distance at the right as the apex of the wedge of horses and jockeys in motion…. In the other two panels the suggestion of a landscape background is rather minimal except for the roughness of the turf and, in the Clark’s painting, the pink on the hillock in the background. In the Whitney painting [the present work], on the other hand, the ground changes color, and there are trees of different sizes and configurations on the horizon. Around and behind these trees are a few hints, a smokestack or roofs, of human habitation” (ibid, p. 128).

The version in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute was sold in 1882 and very likely painted the same year. The example in the Walters Art Gallery appears on stylistic grounds to have been painted in the late 1880s. In 1888, Theo van Gogh acquired the present work for his gallery (a branch of Goupil-Boussod et Valadon), but it could have been painted as early as 1882. He sold it the next year to the distinguished publisher Paul Gallimard in whose collection it remained until the late 1920s. It was with Reid & Lefevre in 1927, and the following year M. Knoedler and Co., New York, sold it to Mr. John Hay Whitney. Of course the acquisition was a reflection of a deep and abiding interest in thoroughbreds and horse racing. Eventually Whitney’s collection included outstanding equestrian subjects by Géricault, de Dreux, Degas, Manet and Munnings. In addition, the Whitney family's Greentree stable produced many of the greatest horses in American racing history. When Mrs. Whitney passed away in 1998, she instructed that the remaining works in their collection (the majority were donated to The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven) should be used to finance the philanthropic works of the Greentree Foundation; the present work was sold with a group of property from the Foundation at Sotheby’s, New York in May, 2004, a sale that included Pablo Picasso’s iconic Garçon à la Pipe, which was the first work to break $100 million at auction.