Edgar Degas

Provenance

3me Vente Atelier Degas, 7-9 April 1919, lot 126
Ruth Teschner Gallery, New York
At Sotheby's, New York, 23 Oct. 1980, lot 307
Private Collection

Exhibitions

1919, Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, 3me Vente Atelier Degas, 7-9 April 1919, lot 126
2020, London, Piano Nobile, Drawn to Paper: Degas to Rego, 24 June - 24 July 2020, cat. no. 1

Literature

Drawn to Paper: Degas to Rego, exh. cat., Piano Nobile, 2020, pp. 6-7
Unlike many of his colleagues who exhibited in the Impressionist exhibitions, Degas was a consummate draughtsman. He had a reverence for the artistic feats of previous masters, especially French painters such as Delacroix, Ingres and Corot. For Degas, his respect for art of the past was grounded in an admiration for ‘good drawing’, and his tutelage at the École des Beaux-Arts in the 1850s under Louis Lamothe imbued him with a zealous admiration for the technically superior graphic work of Ingres, in particular – Lamothe’s own teacher.

Though Degas’s mature oil paintings typically arrest a fast-moving scene, whether of a passing horse-drawn carriage or the mid-gesture pose of a ballerina on stage, he almost never worked directly from his subject. The impression of something caught in mid-flow was at odds with the lengthy studio process required to bring a single work to completion: in short, the finished works took far longer to make than the fleeting moments they depict. To achieve this conceit, Degas relied upon drawings. He drew from life constantly, working rapidly with a sketchpad balanced on his knee, either during a ballet rehearsal or even during a performance at the theatre itself, where he would allow the low lighting and the awkward angle of his view to impress themselves upon the study.

This drawing, Danseuse vue de dos: Port de bras, depicts a characteristic subject in the artist’s oeuvre: a ballerina mid-pose, in this case performing the port de bras. Translated literally as ‘carriage of the arms’, the port de bras is an exercise involving the arms which refines a ballerina’s movements and makes them more self-consciously graceful. The drawing is not related to any specific painting but rather contributed to Degas’s reserve of stock images, an encyclopaedia of ballet poses which he kept in the studio until his death, ready for use should a given composition require it. All of his paintings were composed in this way, bringing together studies from different times and places to create a scene which both conveyed a sense of life and which demonstrated superior pictorial qualities.

Aside from the rapid and exacting quality of Degas’s mark-making, the written inscriptions on the sheet reveal his private connoisseurial appreciation of ballet dancing. At the lower left-hand edge of the figure, Degas has written to himself: Mouvement faux, tête mal placée (false move, badly placed head). He regularly attended the theatre and the ballet and possessed a considerable understanding of good practice in contemporary ballet dancing. By temperament, however, it was not graceful and symmetric movement that he appreciated but, rather, the unexpected perspectives, awkward gestures and false steps. This appreciation was motivated in part by his allegiance to an aesthetic of imperfection, which grew from the realism practised by earlier French painters like Jean-Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet. In this study, it appears that Degas was not censuring that ‘mouvement faux’, but rather relishing it and the effect of something mildly uncomfortable and striking. Indeed, the dancer’s head sits awkwardly, off-centre and leaning along the same line created by her sloping shoulders.

These brief descriptive inscriptions are commonplace in other studies by the artist. Another drawing of a similar date depicts a ballet dancer at the bar, accompanied by the line: battement à la 4e derriere à la barre (battement in the fourth position at the bar). A further drawing simply includes the note bon (‘good’) – as if Degas were an instructor, acknowledging the progress of his pupil.

The view from behind – the so-called vue de dos – was also a favoured compositional trope in Degas’s drawings of danseuses from the period. This view of a figure gave the artist an opportunity to record a particular combination of difficult or asymmetric attitudes: the sloping of the shoulders, twisting hips and, as seen in one drawing, an almost complete disappearance of the head as it bends into the body. In Danseuse vue de dos: Port de bras, the dancer’s body pivots from left to right. Though the feet remain planted on the ground and facing ahead, her head turns to look down the length of her right arm which stretches away from her centre of balance.

Between 1875 and 1885, the first mature period in his career, Degas tended to use charcoals of the kind visible in this work: a coarse, dry medium, suitable to be scrubbed with the fingers and moulded to adjust the silhouette of a figure or to refine the play of light or the modelling of musculature. Drawings of this period are mostly attentive to the outlines of the figure and the shape of the limbs, with only cursory attention to modelling the dancer’s skirts or other elements of dress. This drawing shows Degas suggesting two different positions for the left leg and both arms; all three limbs have a visual echo where they have been redrawn. These are not conventional pentimenti, however – the unwanted mistakes caused by a lapse of concentration or a failure of the hand. They contribute an apt (if incidental) sense of movement to the figure and they attest to the speed at which Degas was working, directly from a moving figure.

This drawing was sold at one of Degas’s sales following his death in September 1917. There were four studio sales held in total, in May 1918, November 1918 (a sale of the artist’s prints), April 1919, and July 1919. This drawing came up at the third studio sale in April 1919. The sales were widely publicised and many collectors sought work from them, including the young art historian Kenneth Clark who was able to purchase another of Degas’s drawing which was also sold at the third atelier sale in April 1919.