The depiction of eight dancers, four on the stage in the middle ground of the picture bowing to the spectators, and four in the side wings in the darker foreground of the image preparing to go on, is undated. Lemoisne gives 1885 as a possible year for the painting’s execution. For the author of the catalogue raisonné, the date between 1878 and 1893 “represent the apogee of Degas’ career, the period in which he creates, easily and powerfully, a magnificent series of masterpieces” (vol. 1, p. 109)
Recent research by Richard Kendall, however, has shown that the present painting belongs to a group of pictures from the 1870s that seem to have remained in the artist’s studio until the 1890s. It was then that Degas started an astonishing campaign of over – painting whose earlier canvases, working in the bold facture and the unusual, often daring color combinations characteristic of his later work, sometimes – as X – ray photographs have shown – even altering the compositions. One of the most prominent examples of such a reworking of an earlier work is Dancers, Pink and Green that came to the Metropolitan Museum from the Havemeyer Collection (Lemoisne 1013). While Gary Tinterow, writing in the catalogue of the 1988/89 retrospective exhibition, suggested that, “although [this painting] seems to have been worked in layers, they probably
were applied consecutively during one period of work.” (Degas, exhibition catalogue Paris/Ottawa/New York 1988/89, p. 476. cat. no. 293), Kendall has since then convincingly proven that the Havemeyer Dancers belong to the series of these ‘reprises’ of the 1890s (Degas beyond Impressionism, exhibition catalogue London/Chicago 1996/97, pp. 122 f.)
In a similar way, the backstage setting of the present picture and the intriguing way that the ‘public’ group of dancers on the stage is set toward the back of the depicted scene derive from the 1870s. The densely worked surface with its broadened brushwork, with the medium of pastel. Our Danseuses is a fascinating example of the artist’s attempt to recreate in oil the multi- layered pastel technique. Experimenting with oil paints as he would when working with pastel crayons, Degas applies thick, pasty layers of paint. The colors are mixed with white to render them opaque, thereby achieving a pastel – like effect and inverting the normal glazing effects of oil paint. The richly textured paint body visible today is limited to a warm palette in shades of green, blue, and reddish – brown that period are the accents of bright red, orange, and yellow as well as brighter tones of green and blue used by the artist to create flickers of contrasting color.
In light of this recent research, a canvas showing the virtually identical composition and traditionally believed to be a preparatory study for out painting (Danseuses dans les coulisses, Lemoisne 842) has to be seen as a repetition of the Danseuses. During his later reworking of this group of canvases (other closely linked examples are Lemoisne 839 and 843, the latter dated “ca. 1878,1893 by Kendall in his most recent Degas and the Dance, exhibition catalogue Detroit/Philadelphia 2002/2003, pp.272 and 274, fig. 316) Degas obviously took the present painting as a starting point for a fresh canvas. While the composition remains essentially the same, Danseuses dans les coulisses shows none of the finely painted details, especially in the dancers on the stage in the middle ground, which in our painting are the most visible remains of the initial work of the 1870s.
The present painting of the Danseuses shows, according to Richard Kendall, “an intricate amalgam of Degas’ early and late styles, combining on the one hand a fascinating backstage scene of ca. 1875 – 80, originally executed with the precision characteristic of those years, and on the other a more improvised late painting of the 1890s. At this later date, Degas’ technique had become freer and richer, which his colors had been enlivened through contact with such artists as Monet, Gauguin, and Bonnard. The reason for his decision to re – paint certain canvases of his youth remains mysterious, but it might be seen as a gesture of liberation, even a rejection of the restraint of his younger years under such influences. Many passages of Danseuses embody this spirit of experiment and late – flowering delight in the medium” (reference: letter, Richard Kendall 21 November 2002)
Signed at lower right
GALERIE SOPHIE SCHEIDECKER
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