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

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If we turn to the group of works around Ottawa's pastel, we find a preparatory drawing of the figure at the left (Fig. 5) which is almost the reverse of the drawing of the figure at the right in the other com- position (Fig. 4) .The differences between the two help us date the Ottawa work, if only by making it improbable that it should be, like the other drawings, from c. 1885. If we were comparing the originals rather than their illustrations we should be struck by a difference in scale - the drawing of the one ballerina, which can safely be described as later, three times as high and three times as wide as the drawing from about 1885. The next conspicuous difference might be that the later dancer is an adult with a certain automatic professional control over her body - and in her very adulthood and skill a generalization without the specific personality of the adolescent girl. In her body there is not the same sculptural force into space, combined with physical strength, that one sees in the shoulders and the arm of the little dancer; indeed, as the preliminary study of her nude (Fig. 6) makes particularly clear, the contours of her body are heavy and almost monotonously similar, without the variations and breaking which give such animated direction to the earlier work. She seems, partly because of the limitations of the strong contour, to have been conceived in a flatter, more confined space than the other dancer, and altogether more compressed around the vertical of her body. Finally, instead of the free and open charcoal strokes which suggest light and shadow in the earlier drawing (particularly illusionistically upon the tutu), these strokes are more severely parallel, and closer to each other, creating an effect of artificial luminosity rather than of the sun.

This figure, in Ottawa's pastel (Fig. 9), is almost concealed by an ungainly dancer who struggles to put her foot on the bar - a figure worlds removed from the ease of the ballerina in Fig. 1. She is angular, harshly described) apparently unbalanced both physically and psychologically as she concentrates upon the barre. We are far from the charm and wit of the composition from the mid-eighties. The work does have a beauty in its light, its colour and the strength of the movements through the contour lines - but this beauty seems independent of the cruel description of the dancers.

To return to our original question, in asking, "Where does this drawing fit into Degas' career?", we can at least eliminate any probability that these later works should be close enough to those of the mid-eighties to be from the dates M. Lemoisne suggests - 1884-88.

In the works Degas dated there is nothing helpful between 1886 and a small group from 1894 and 1895. One of the pastels from 1894 - a Racetrack (23) - is instructive because it is almost a replica of another of the same subject which Degas dated in 1884. (24) The later work is more generalized, less brilliant in its contrasts in colour, less specific in its description of space, and moodily dominated by a dark shadow on a hill in the background - and in these respects closer to Ottawa 's drawing. A nude (25) and a figure dressing, (26) which are also dated 1894, seem anatomically similar to the drawing of the dancer nude, And in the opaque oil and the bold colour of the painting in the Phillips Collection, there is a suggestion of the handling of both in the painting of Henri Rouart and his son Alexis (27) which can be dated by two preparatory drawings (28) which are inscribed "1895." Our group seems more at home in this period of Degas' career.

There are reasons, however, for shoving this group even further on chronologically. One is that the mood is fiercer and less gently bewildered than the works which are dated 1894 and 1895. Another is that the handling of charcoal, pastel or paint does not have as many spirited passages. The most conclusive argument against a date of about 1894 or 1895 is provided by Degas' only late dated study of the dance, the pastel called Danseuses: Rose et Vert from 1894. (29) These dancers are more fully described physically - the arms and backs more strongly articulated, the calves of the legs more muscular. Ottawa's other pastel of Danseuses (Fig. 7), which Lemoisne dates 1891 (30) and Browse a related work c. 1890-1900, (31) seems closer to it. The Danseuses à la Barre, when compared with both these works, seems peopled by mere wraiths.

The works of Degas' late years do seem populated by ghosts - dancers with frail, insubstantial bodies and fierce souls revealed by a brilliant, warm and uncanny light. Their figures, like the drawing of the nude (Fig. 6), seem to have been originally conceived as possessing some flesh, a certain strength and an energy, to which the dancer herself in this drawing seems characteristically indifferent. In the only late dated drawing of a nude, a pastel from 1903, (32) there is perhaps an even greater suggestion of the absence of a determining reason behind the marvelous but exaggerated movements of the bather drying her leg. Movements, independent of a controlling and conscious mind within the body, dominated his latest works.

When Degas added the dress to the body of the dancer (Fig. 5) he removed any of the figure's roundness, even in the contours of the arm. The sculptural density of that body seems absorbed by the intensity of the light. By the stage of the drawing in Ottawa (Fig. 9) that body seems to have little existence aside from the forceful strokes of Degas' pastel: it is these alone which give the work its vitality and its structural strength. By the finished oil (Fig. 8) she is even further removed from the descriptive - her leg elongated, her profile simplified, her back a rich play of colour and light. And apathy has triumphed; the sense of a concerned mind within the
dancer has disappeared.

This group of late works reveals Degas working towards the abstract, taking the human body, describing it but gradually evolving a form for it which is dominated by line and colour. In the pastels and the oil, which involve both figures, the structure and the strength of the works depend upon line, colour, light and the touch with which Degas applied chalk or paint. But abstraction, although carried so far, was not an end in itself; instead it was used to convey a feeling of pathos in the contrast between the energy of the colour and the line, and the ungainliness of the dancers struggling at the barre. This same quality exists in two groups of portraits of members of the Rouart family which can be dated 1904 and 1905. (33)

It would seem unsafe to try to date the National Gallery pastel any more precisely than between 1895 and 1905 although Miss Browse is probably correct in putting it into the twentieth century. In it we can see how the confidence which the Impressionists felt in the years in which they were exhibiting together (1874 to 1886) was transformed into the disillusionment which was part of the fin de siècle spirit.

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