1895-1900, Danseuse à l'éventail
is a remarkable example of Degas’ favorite subject: that of ballet dancers in the quiet moments either side of a 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 and the circus. Fascinated by spectacle and the excitement of public entertainment, Degas found an endless source of inspiration in the ballet and sketching performers first-hand. He also witnessed the behind-the-scenes preparation of the dancers by frequenting rehearsal rooms or attending dance classes and thus captured the casual, unguarded moments not seen by the public during grand performances. From his earliest treatments of this theme, Degas contrasted the stylized movements of public ballet performances with the informal situations around them.Danseuse à l'éventail
depicts a dancer caught unaware in a moment of rest backstage. Her pose recurs in examples in other media, such as in Danseuse habillée au repos, les mains sur les reins, la jambe droite en avant
. This sculpture was likely modeled around the same time as the present work, circa
1895-1905 and cast at a later date from the wax original, which is presently in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Of the fourteen casts, four can be found in important museum collections: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Musée d’Orsay, Paris and Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Brazil. The sculpture is a critical example within the artist’s corpus because it is the only work aside from Petite danseuse de quatorze ans
to have been modeled in a tutu (see fig. 1). Unlike other Degas sculptures, which highlight the artist’s conceptual understanding of space, movement and the human form, this particular model contextualizes the figure within a performance space or backstage environment, much like the present work.
Degas’ statuettes can truly be seen as three-dimensional displays of his exploration of the human form, complementing his two-dimensional studies on paper. In the present work, Degas experiments with the use of pastel by using the medium to imbue the sheet with all the energy and movement present in the backstage world of these ballet performances. Rendered in vibrant hues of pink, blue, green and yellow, Degas skillfully depicts the vigorous movement of the dancer’s fan while also alluding to the flurry of colorful tutus behind the dancer through the quick, energetic application of pigment in the background.
Degas’ pastels offer a chance to see his draftsmanship at its finest. His use of cross-hatching, shading and smudging capture the palpable energy and attention he dedicated to each work. An exquisite example of Degas’ impressive mature works on paper, indeed Danseuse à l'éventail exudes the same color and energy present in the backstage world of the ballet, while illustrating the vital creative connection between the artist’s two-dimensional and three-dimensional works that served as a defining feature of his career.