Two Studies of Dancers

This unusually well preserved sheet contains two early studies of ballet dancers–a subject with which Degas’s name has become synonymous. The primary figure stands on one foot, with arms spread wide and her free leg extended in a battement à la seconde. She wears a muslin tutu and a look of concentration. Her counterpart, depicted horizontally in the lower portion of the sheet, turns downwards and inwards, apparently adjusting her bodice or sash. Strokes of white chalk indicate light streaming in from an unseen source behind the first dancer and before the second; two inscriptions near the bottom edge of the sheet read “très reflété”: a note from the artist to himself indicating strong reflected light. Degas used brilliant green, pink, and blue papers to work out individual figures for several of his ballet paintings from the early 1870s, tracing the contours and shadows in black chalk or thinned oil paint, using the colored paper to fill in the middle tones, and adding a few touches of white to suggest the reflective surfaces of satin and skin.

The principal figure on this sheet is squared for transfer; both she and her companion appear in a painting known as The Rehearsal, today in the Harvard Art Museums: there the dancing girl wears a crown of pale blue flowers and appears to the left of center, while the girl turned away figures in the background, her head apparently bowed in conference with another dancer. Other preparatory studies for this picture are today in the Morgan Library and the Norton Simon Museum.The Harvard painting reveals the light source all three drawings share to have been a row of high windows looking onto a leafy courtyard from the main rehearsal room at the old Paris opera house in the rue Le Peletier. This clearly identifiable location suggests that the Harvard picture (and, hence, the proposed sheet) can probably be dated to no later than 1873; the old opera house burned to the ground in October of that year. Degas, however, kept this drawing in his studio, recycling its figures again and again. Both reappear in a tempera painting of about 1878 today in the Shelburne Museum, where the same dancing girl wears a black hair ribbon and a pink sash; this same figure appears yet again in the background of an oil painting today in the Frick Collection of about 1878-1879, wearing a blue hair ribbon and an unsettling half-smile.

Black chalk heightened with white chalk on green paper (about 1873)

by Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917)

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