Degas alternated between working with oil painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture. He leaned toward working with pastel once his vision had deteriorated. He seldom handled landscape or outdoor views, except for his incursion into monotype technique, which he approached from the standpoint of abstraction more than with figurative intentions. He was interested in capturing “the momentary”, and this is why he was attracted to horse races, ballet performances, dancers practicing or the unexpected moments from his series of female nudes related to the bath. Among these themes, dancers play an important role due to the technique utilized and the way they crystallize a body of explorations that were highly original for that era. They involved integrating figures in a particular space in which the viewer who is observing “that moment” is also accounted for, from an almost privileged position, becoming an integrated part of what happens there. He presented the dancers either alone or in groups, taking classes, just before going on stage, dancing on stage, taking their bows or resting in the wings. In every case, what prevailed was capturing that intimate moment, a particular gesture, an instant that might transmit all the emotional charge of the situation represented. His vision was that of a realist (1) making use of any means possible in order to reach its objective: he moved planes closer, used an elevated point of view looking downward to favor a scene’s descriptive intensity or decentralized the composition like in Japanese prints, which had captivated him ever since discovering Hokusai’s painting. He focused his gaze on particular, individual figures, always viewed from an oblique angle quite close to the viewer, reproducing the spatial or focal distortions caused by the binoculars often used by the spectators at these performances (2). Degas’ interest in ballet performances began around 1870. He assiduously attended the Opéra de Paris building on Le Peletier Street (3), a physical space that served as the scenario for his series of paintings on this theme. The first works served in order to develop his primary concerns: he centered his attention on organizing a group of figures in an interior, descriptive elements and a study of the effects of artificial light combined with natural light. By 1880 he dedicated himself to handling these themes using pastel, which allowed for more fluid strokes. He managed to fuse color and drawing, applying pastel with strong vertical marks that enhanced tonalities by way of color contrasts. He used an anti-natural palette, including electric blue, titanium yellow, oranges and reds, highlighting color planimetry. Toward the end of this decade, representations of the dancers appear almost obsessively set in backstage areas. Degas had access to the backstage area of the theater thanks to his friendship with musicians, choreographers, composers, and as a season subscriber from 1885 to 1892. This permitted him to record the activity in the spaces where the dancers habitually circulated: side halls, dressing rooms, practice halls and the foyer, where subscribers would get together during intermissions.In one of the dancers series that he painted in his final years (4)—the period that Deux danseuses jaunes et roses (Two Dancers in Yellow and Pink) pertains to—they appear in pairs, resting, exhausted after their activity, seated on a bench, one alongside the other trying to alleviate their fatigue, rubbing their ankles, head collapsed on a hand while the other arm remains out of sight or, as in this case, adjusting her companion’s tutu almost through inertia. In these final works from the 1890s the colors are strong, the lines are thick and the spaces portrayed are unreal and scenery-like. The dancers’ bodies have lost their ability to dance; they rest, greet or wait, and in the rare cases that they do dance, it is in collective movements, with an absence of individual talent (5). What is noteworthy about these later images of dancers is the transformation that takes place in the compositions and how color functions. Color allows Degas to make variations of the same scene. The compositions in his series never constitute identical pairs. Some aspect of the characters would be modified, or some detail would be suppressed. Degas managed to achieve greater depth in his search for expression; in addition to showing us the world behind the scenes of a show’s glamour, he represented his dancers as working women, who struggle to develop their skills, who suffer disillusionment at times, who get tired and only occasionally reach stardom.Claudia Turolla – Melania Núñez Santacruz
1— See: Carol Armstrong, Odd Man Out. Readings of the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas. Chicago/London, The University of Chicago Press, 1991.
2— Jill de Vonyar and Richard Kendall, Degas and the dance, exhib. cat. New York, Harry N. Abrams/American Federation of Arts, 2002.
3— This building was destroyed in a fire in 1873 and was quickly replaced by the current Opera building, known as the Palacio Garnier in honor of its designer, Charles Garnier.
4— Series whose point of departure, according to Vonyar and Kendall, was the work done in charcoal and colored in pastel, Deux danseuses au repos (Two Dancers Resting), ca. 1890, Philadelphia Museum of Art. The handling of color that he employs in the other versions with similar structures, such as Danseuses (Dancers), for example, ca. 1891, at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and a smaller version, Deux danseuses (Two dancers), 1898, The Saint Louis Art Museum can be reconstructed on the basis of this piece, the master drawing from which the other two are derived.
5— Virginia Bertone, Degas. Madrid, Electa, 1995.
1914. Degas. Paris, Vollard Album, nº 1324 a 1332-1367, reprod. nº 1.
1946-1949. LEMOISNE, Paul-André, Degas et son oeuvre. Paris, Paul Brame & C. M. de Hauke/Arts et Métiers Graphiques, vol. 3, nota 1323 y vol. 4, “Index catalographique des peintures et pastels, Argentine, Colección Mercedes Santamarina”, p. 91.