- Edgar Degas
- Trois danseuses debout près d'un portant
- Stamped Degas (lower left)
- Pastel and charcoal on card
Alphonse Kann, Paris (possibly)
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris (possibly)
Sam Salz, Inc., New York
Charles Lachman, New York
Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York (and sold: Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York, April 14, 1965, lot 43A)
Thomas Gruenbaum, New York (acquired at the above sale)
Acquavella Galleries, New York
Stephen Hahn Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in 1972)
Acquired from the above in 1972
The Opéra and its ballet school were central to Degas’ life. Like many upper-class Parisians of his day, Degas had a subscription and 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 like Melinda Darde and Adèle Marchisio would mingle.
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 on the rue Victor Massé. 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. It was at this time that he began to work in series, a practice which opened up a wealth of creative possibilities.
By 1900, Degas had arrived in at a distillation of pictorial means that presaged the modernity of the century to come. When comparing the present pastel and others of Degas’ late period with those of previous decades, one instantly observes that the artist has largely dispensed with his early penchant for specificity and detail. He attains instead a lyrical expression of rhythmical form that verges on abstraction, most clearly evident in this work in the sweeping blocks of color of the dancers' tutus. Color became for Degas the revelation of prismatic essence, surpassing anything to be found in Impressionism at that date: as if he was drawing with light itself. The scholar Joan Sutherland Boggs noted how “the very texture of Degas’s work seems an immediate expression of the will of the man himself…in his interest in and reliance on abstraction, there is a willfulness and a turning to what Degas himself described as ‘mystery’ in art” (Degas (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, pp. 481-82).
This exquisite pastel captures the hidden world behind the scenes of the Palais Garnier's spectacular ballet productions. Three ballerinas uniformly dressed anticipate the moment the curtain will rise, each one preparing in her own way: posturing, stretching and peering. Degas' profound sensitivity to the existential condition of the dancers is evident in the way they each occupy a singularly defined physical and mental space without interacting with one another. While they may seem alike, he boldly celebrates individuality in the context of an art form which inherently rewards uniformity. The viewer is simultaneously struck by the picture's voyeuristic appeal. Degas transports us into this rarefied and casual scene, away from the pretense of a staged performance. As the contemporary critic Jules Claretie writes, "he knows and depicts the backstage world of the theater like no-one else, the dance foyers, the essential appeal of the Opéra rats in their bouffant skirts" (quoted in Degas and the Dance (exhibition catalogue), The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit & The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 2002, p. 63).
The curator and scholar Anne F. Maheux has discussed the artist’s use of pastel, and the process that he developed to render his compositions with a richness that was unparalleled by artists of his generation. She writes, “Degas' restless experimentation with combined media eventually evolved into a purer pastel technique, comprised of vigorously hatched, interpenetrating layers of colors that, according to Rouart, were due to his weakening eyesight. The extraordinary textures found in these works…were created by an intense network of bright colors, applied in a spirited variety of squiggles, striations, and prominent crisscross hachures. This technique of juxtaposing colors to create new optical mixtures of remarkable originality and richness recalls a technique of Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (1715-1783)—his unorthodox manner of laying in shadows with green hatchings—and recalls even more directly John-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) (see fig. 4), who applied pastel in parallel hatchings, building thick textures of superimposed layers of pure color to describe form, relief and light” (Jean Sutherland Boggs & Anne Maheux, Degas Pastel, New York, 1992, pp. 31-32).