Degas’s fascination with the subject prompted him to create countless studies and finished works of dancers at rest or in motion, both on and off-stage, in a variety of media. In Groupe de Quatre Danseuses, the impromptu, unguarded moment of the girl bending down to tie her pointe shoes contrasts with the stylised positions of the two figures behind, who are elegantly practicing the classical movements. Degas was drawn to the ballet as a form of physical expression because of its ever-changing nature; the ideal subject matter for his obsession of rendering the human body in movement from every conceivable angle and level. Broadly and rapidly executed in charcoal, with the immediacy of a snapshot, this drawing encapsulates each dancer’s immersion in their individual preparation.
As an upper class Parisian, Degas was a member of an elite, all-male club called the abonnés, who enjoyed the privilege of having a free run of the performances at the Palais Garnier, including access to the backstage areas, which allowed him to record details of the dancers’ practices that were unseen by the general public. By the late 1870s and into the 1880s, he was well-known among the members of the company as he consorted, in the wings and classrooms, with some of the city’s poorest girls who were transformed into the fairies, nymphs and queens of the stage. He often sketched them while they stretched or collapsed with exhaustion. In his later years, he would invite dancers to his studio, making them pose for long periods of time and sometimes repositioning them in accordance with the eccentricities of his compositions. At the ballet, Degas found a world that excited both his taste for classical beauty and his eye for modern realism. No other painter of his time was able to present the exclusive atmosphere of ballet so compellingly or to imbue the often overlooked beauty and spontaneity of its informality.
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