Pigmented in electric tones of green, blue and orange, this exquisite pastel by Degas features the artist’s most recognizable subject of ballet dancers—a theme which would come to define the artist and his later works. Born in Paris to an aristocratic family, Degas frequented the city’s resplendent operas, ballets and circuses from a young age; the spectacle of live entertainment at once capturing his attention. Such vibrant and animated routines and the corporeal mechanics involved would serve as a source of inspiration throughout Degas’ career, as the artist gradually shifted his focus from live performances to the dancers’ movements backstage, in the studios and in the wings. Reflecting the changing tapestry of the city around him, Degas chose to depict a Paris is the throes of modernization, replete with the players of its burgeoning entertainment industry. Far from the artist’s bourgeois roots, Degas’ dancers surfaced from the lower and working classes, their colorful costumes and captivating acts belying the harsh truth of a performer’s grueling workday—including the reality of less savory forms of “entertainment.”
For Degas, repetition was a critical component of the artistic process, stating that “one must do the same subject over again ten times, a hundred times. In art, nothing must resemble an accident, not even movement.” Though this fascination with form was constant throughout his career, Degas’ focus on the human figure in motion more fully evolved in the 1870s as he began working increasingly in pastel (see figs. 1 & 2). Inspired by the 18th-century portraitist Quentin de la Tour (see fig. 3), Degas began experimenting with the malleable medium and soon discovered possibilities not afforded by oil paint. Conveying both the brilliance of color and the solidity of line, pastel endowed Degas with a newfound sense of freedom in his work, allowing the artist to manually smudge and blend the pigment throughout the composition. The epitome of Degas’ impressive late works on paper, Deux danseuses radiates color; vibrant hues of blues and yellows morph across the ballerinas' tutus into dazzling orange and turquoise. Moving away from the linear technique of his early career, this medium allowed him to work in a freer, more instinctive style.
While pastel allowed for greater whim in his application of pigment, Degas remained deliberate in his compositions; once stating “no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and the study of the great masters.” Although there’s a seemingly unprompted quality to his drawings and pastels, Degas often analyzed each dancer’s movement intently, as he began working increasingly with models in his studio rather than working directly from live rehearsals.
As exemplified by the present work, Degas favored unusual angles in his composition, drawing the viewer in with innovative perspectives inspired by Japanese prints (see fig. 4). Deviating from the traditional Western perspective popularized during the Renaissance, Degas’ dramatic cropping produces a cinematic and sometimes confounding effect of transience. By truncating certain areas of the scene, the viewer feels closer to the dancers, creating a thrilling sense that we are a part of their conversation. This disorienting perspective can also be seen in Ballet from an Opera Box (see fig. 5), where an opulently dressed woman rests her arm along the balcony railing while looking over her shoulder to watch the performance.
Degas’ pastels offer a chance to see his draftsmanship at its finest; with his use of cross-hatching, shading, and smudging, the energy and attention he dedicated to each work is palpable. Degas continued to experiment and evolve his technique by working with several materials. The dancer series began to take shape in several forms such as sculpting in wax, painting in oil, but above all, working with pastel. Completed during one of his most prolific periods, Deux danseuses is a beautiful example of Degas most vibrant and significant series.
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