National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 3 (II:1), 1964

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Danseuses à la barre by Degas

by Jean Sutherland Boggs,
author, curator, The Art Gallery of Toronto

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  

The Danseuses à la Barre (Fig. 9) by Edgar Degas, in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, illustrates a crucial problem in studying the later works of this painter. It is not a problem of authenticity; this pastel was in Degas' studio at the time of his death, and was sold in the first sale of its contents (1) and illustrated in the catalogue. Nor is there any question about its provenance, which can be traced from the distinguished dealer, Jacques Seligmann, who bought it at that sale, and from whose own sale in 1921 it was daringly purchased by the National Gallery. (2) It is thoroughly documented, not only in the two sales catalogues, but also in the standard catalogue of the painter's work by M. Lemoisne (3) and in the book on Degas Dancers by Miss Lillian Browse. (4) In spite of this formidable background of knowledge about the work, including the fact that it is one of several studies (5) for an oil painting (6) in the Phillips Collection (Fig. 8) in Washington, the difficulty remains; it is almost impossible to date the work with any precision.

The difficulty can, perhaps, be measured by the dates which have been suggested for this pastel and for the other works related to the Phillips oil. M. Lemoisne proposes c. 1884-88 for the group, M. Jamot (a distinguished commentator upon Degas' work) c. 1890-95 (7), and Miss Browse c. 1900-05- a range of twenty-one years in dating the works of an artist who died only in 1917. Even in Degas' earlier paintings of the dance the chronology is not always clear although, in a recent issue of the Burlington (8), Mr. Ronald Pickvance has taken an important step toward its clarification by his examination of documents and reviews. 

How can one find a date for the National Gallery's pastel - presumably sometime within those twenty-one years from 1884, when Degas was fifty, to 1905? Exhibitions are not helpful. The last of those of the Impressionists or Independents was held within this time, in 1886, but Degas did not exhibit any studies of dancers in it. (9) Only one of his notebooks is preserved from this period and it is from the same year, 1886. (10) Witness accounts of the artist are not sufficiently precise to be able to separate one set of studies of the ballet from others. Consequently we are forced to depend upon the stylistic evidence of his dated works. And even here there are difficulties since Degas dated only 25 (11) of the over 700 works M. Lemoisne catalogued from 1884 until the end of the artist's career, and only one of these (12) is, like the Phillips version of Ottawa's work, an oil, and only one (13) a painting of the dance.

Before using these 25 works as a basis for dating this pastel, it would seem wise to stop to consider the subject and the painter's use of it before the earliest date suggested by M. Lemoisne. Although from the moment in 1872 that he began to make the ballet one of his principal themes Degas was as much interested in classes and rehearsals as in finished performances, he only occasionally drew or painted dancers limbering themselves up at the barre. Quite early in his studies of the dance he made a charcoal and pastel drawing (Fig. 1) of such a ballerina (14), in which he emphasized the ease with which she balanced herself and the strength in the leg muscles which supported her. Degas did not idealize her sturdy body or the features of her face but he did use the light of the pastel to make her dress a romantically luminous thing.

It was probably only a year or two later that Degas painted the charming small work (Fig. 2) which is now in the Metropolitan Museum (15) and which, when it was sold at the auction of the collection of his friend, Henri Rouart, in 1912 for 435,000 francs, caused Degas to remark "Je suis comme le cheval qui gagne le grand prix et qui n'a que son avoine." (16) The small dancer at the right is in somewhat the same position as the ballerina in the other drawing, but the emphasis is not upon her skill but upon her endearingly youthful difficulties. Her arms and shoulders seem frail, and, the little we can see of her hair and face, wistfully appealing. This assumption of a specific personality can remind us of the painter's interest in portraiture at the same time.

Somewhat later, in working toward a composition like the earlier painting, (17) Degas made studies (Figs. 3 and 4) of an equally youthful and awkward ballerina. He was, however, more mocking than tender, for there is an unsentimental insouciance in this ballerina 's ungainliness. Instead of the delicate articulation of the body and the suggestions of movement through that body, as one finds it in the Metropolitan's painting, the motion is reinforced by the abrupt, harsh, and angular movements of Degas' piece of charcoal or pastel. The strength of the thrust of our eyes through space is particularly apparent in the compositional drawing. The effect of these drawings is consequently vigorous and without any allusion to the graceful ballerina who might emerge, as we somewhat poignantly expect her to do from the young dancer in the Metropolitan's painting.

These studies break into the period which M. Lemoisne suggests for Ottawa's pastel. The combination of realism, wistfulness and humour and the strength of the characterization in the profile can be found in Degas' portrait of Mme Henri Rouart, (18) which is dated 1884, and in his triple portrait of Mlle Salle (19) which is dated 1886. Its energy in space as well as the thrust of the body can be found in a small work called Le Café Concert (20) from 1885. The rapidity of the charcoal strokes, and the suggestion of light and shadow with them, is not unlike the drawing of Mme Rouart or a drawing for one of the bathers which is dated 1885 (21) And the respect for physical energy reinforced by the artist's own energetic use of abstract means is like the great bathers which Degas dated 1884-86, (22) probably in preparation for the last exhibition of the Impressionists.

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