Lot 138
  • 138

EDGAR DEGAS | Quatre danseuses

250,000 - 350,000 GBP
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  • Edgar Degas
  • Quatre danseuses
  • signed Degas (upper right)
  • charcoal and pastel on paper
  • 60.3 by 29.7cm., 23 3/4 by 11 5/8 in.
  • Executed circa 1902.


Ambroise Vollard, Paris
Martin Fabiani, Paris (acquired by 1984)
Marisa del Re Gallery, Inc., New York
Dr & Mrs Robert Nowinksi, New York (sale: Sotheby's, New York, 11th November 1992, lot 124)
Gloria Gurney, New York (purchased at the above sale)
Private Collection, New York (by descent from the above; sale: Sotheby's, New York, 8th November 2006, lot 144)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner


Roslyn, Nassau County Museum of Art, Twentieth Century Master Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture: From the Nowinski Collection, 1992, n.n., illustrated in colour in the catalogue


Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et son œuvre, Supplément, Paris, 1894, no. 160, illustrated p. 175
Ambroise Vollard, Quatre-vingt-dix-huit reproductions signées par Degas, Paris, 1914, illustrated pl. XL


Executed on buff coloured wove paper and laid down onto a card which is in turn mounted on a board. The sheet is lightly time stained and there is minor discolouration to the edges likely due to a previous mount. There are three repaired tears measuring approximately 1.5cm in the upper left quadrant and one repaired tear measuring approximately 1.5cm in the lower left quadrant. The sheet is faintly inscribed in pencil in the lower right corner. The pigment is strong and this work is in overall good condition.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

‘As in his other studies of the working women of Paris, from laundresses to prostitutes, Degas was evidently committed to making art for his fellow citizens out of the raw material that nourished their luxury and pleasure. At the Opéra, this necessarily involved what Eunice Lipton has called the “demystification of the dance”, a matter-of-fact engagement with long hours in class and rehearsal room, where youthful physiques were tuned for their fleeting roles in the footlights’
(R. Kendall in Degas and the Dance (exhibition catalogue), The Detroit Museum of Arts, Detroit, 2003, p. 137).

After three decades of exploring the motif of dance, danseuses continued to reign supreme in Degas’ art at the turn of the twentieth century. It remained his favorite subject and in the public regard continues to stand fast as his signature theme. For Degas, the dancer, not the nude, took its place at the apotheosis of the human figure. The present work is an affirmation of the profound commitment Degas accorded the theme during his lifetime, a vigorous display of the grandeur of the ballet, and perhaps most notably a richly intellectual and physiological composition fraught with social commentary. This briefly glimpsed moment of excitement reveals the fragility of the performers, their essential humanity captivating both the artist and the viewer.

Degas’s fascination with dance first developed in the 1860s as he would regularly attend the ballet, opera and the circus. These spectacles of performance provided Degas with an endless source of inspiration and he delighted in sketching the performers as he saw them. By sketching the moving dancers Degas was able to study and immortalize the highly stylized poses of classical ballet. The informal behind-the-scenes world of rehearsals, however, were of equal interest to him and he paid attention to the dancers’ actions either side of a performance. In closely capturing the dancers’ intimate backstage moments Degas’s depictions of ballerinas take on an element of psychological portraiture.

Executed circa 1902, Quatre danseuses reflects the stylistic transformation that the artist’s work underwent in his later years. Moving away from the linear style of his earlier works Degas began to adopt a looser and more freely applied brushstroke whose spontaneity captured the vibrancy of movement and colour.

In his 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.

Delineating his figures with sweeping black lines the dancers are unaware of the artist’s gaze. Each head is captured at a different angle allowing the artist to play with figurative rhythm, an experimentation that was made possible as the artist began to work more with models in his studio during his later years. Gustave Geffroy had remarked at the time of the 1886 Impressionist exhibition that: 'Degas has wanted to represent the woman who doesn’t know she is being looked at. As one would see her hidden behind a curtain or through a keyhole' (quoted in R. Thomson, Degas, The Nudes, London, 1988, p. 138). Packed tightly together we see the ballerinas in a state either of preparation before a performance, or immediately succeeding it. They are caught in private moments of introversion adjusting their dresses, the pale pink pastel  of which stands out alongside the shock of their hair. The cropped and vertical arrangement of Quatre danseuses emphasizes the claustrophobic atmosphere of the stage wings, heightening the element of voyeurism. Quatre Danseuses is a tender example of Degas’s ability to capture snapshots of intimacy outside of the meticulously practiced routine of ballet.