The Quatre danseuses in this stage-wing scene pause to gather along a bench behind a screen, their performance complete—or perhaps, if the ballet is still in progress, they seize an opportunity during an entr’acte to adjust their costumes and catch their breath. This impromptu moment, cast in a frieze-like array of four variously postured figures, seems no less choreographed than the dance itself. As if in a sequence of stop-motion photographic frames, a rhythmic counterpoint of heads, arms, and legs appears to unfold from the dancer crouched at lower right, each figure issuing from the one before it, blossoming into a pyrotechnical burst of vividly colored form.
Degas created this pastel in the early years of the new century. For the previous three decades the art of classical dance had been the chosen, central theme in his oeuvre. The dancer continued to reign supreme in his late work as well, accounting for an even higher proportion—around 75 percent—of his output, in paintings, drawings, and sculpture, than at any time before. Dancers outnumbered the nude—a theme that he treated in his concurrent bathers series and which other figure painters typically ranked most highly in their work—by almost two to one. The dancer, for Degas, took pride of place as the apotheosis of the human form, especially when engaged in movement.
When comparing Quatre danseuses and other pastels of Degas’s late period with those of the 1870s and 1880s, it is instantly apparent that the artist had largely dispensed with his early penchant for specificity and detail—he sought instead to distill his subject down to its very essence. His drawing became bolder, more pliant, and expressive of movement; his supple arabesques of rhythmical gesture anticipated elements of early abstraction. The sublimated passions of this monkishly disciplined, bachelor artist appear to have welled up in the sensuousness of chromatic extravagance that he lavished on his pastels during the final period. “The very texture of Degas’s late work seems an immediate expression of the will of the man himself,” Joan Sutherland Boggs wrote. “In his interest in and reliance on abstraction, there is a willfulness and a turning to what Degas himself described as ‘mystery in art’” (Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, p. 482).
The allure of the ballet for Degas lay only partly in the modern spectacle into which this stylized dance form had been transformed in Paris during the late 19th century. The artist was actually more intent on gazing deep into the ancient past. “Why, Monsieur Degas, do you always do ballet dancers?” Louisine Havemeyer recalled asking the artist while visiting his studio in 1903. “Because, Madame,” he replied, “it is all that is left to us of the combined movements of the Greeks” (Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector, New York, 1993, p. 256). Degas was alluding to his profound interest in the exemplary, enduring art of classical antiquity. He read the Greek classics in the original language. The writer Henri Hertz reported Degas to have stated that his dancers “followed the Greek tradition purely and simply, almost all antique statues representing the movement and balance of rhythmic dance” (quoted in J. DeVonyar and R. Kendall, Degas and the Dance, exh. cat., The Detroit Institute of Arts, 2002, p. 235).
The artist had long been a frequent visitor to the rooms of Greek and Roman art in the Louvre, where he studied the painting and sculpture of antiquity, ranging from the figures on Attic vases to the Vénus de Milo, the Hellenistic marble relief fragment Les trois Grâces, and the relief panels from the Temple of Artemis in the ancient city of Magnesia. Standing before the famous Vénus, Degas remarked to his friend Georges Jeanniot, “The Greek sculptor gave this figure a splendid movement, while retaining the calm that characterizes masterpieces” (quoted in ibid., p. 244).
Degas was well aware that a renewed interest in the ancient arts had provided the impetus for the sweeping revitalization of balletic form and practice that took place during the Romantic era. He realized that from these classical sources, a painter and draughtsman might also usefully study and recreate the figure either in motion or repose, which had become an essential aim driving the modernist impulse in his own art. Paul Gsell, a friend of Degas and Rodin, and a writer on sculpture at the turn of the 20th century, compared the “last groups of dancers executed in pastel” to ancient “bas-reliefs” (quoted in ibid., p. 235). Indeed, as Degas sought to gain the fullest understanding of the dynamism and balance embodied in the human form, he turned to modeling sculpture. Rare among painters of his stature at that time, he achieved mastery in representing the figure fully in the round, as demonstrated in six sculptures of dancers included in this sale catalogue.
The present pastel is one among an extended series of closely related compositions on which Degas had first embarked some five years earlier (Lemoisne, nos. 1304-1305, 1321, 1428-1434, and 1452bis; together with other thematic variants). The sumptuously staged ballet productions that once regularly attracted Degas to the Opéra de Paris no longer piqued his interest—his attendance at performances declined steeply after the mid-1880s. The artist moreover allowed his backstage pass to lapse, and consequently ceased frequenting the rehearsal and practice rooms that had once been a favorite haunt, where he had done exhaustive research into the mechanics and practice of ballet technique.
By this late stage in his career, however, Degas had accumulated a comprehensive bank of visual memories to draw upon, and an extensive body of work which would continue to serve as fertile ground for further cultivation of the ballet theme. With the aid of only one or two models, supplying his own imaginary invention of a few props, he could easily simulate in his studio at 37, rue Victor Massé, in the 9e arrondissement, the atmosphere and conditions of the ballet stage and practice rooms, while focusing more closely in this intimate, private setting on the posture and movement of the models themselves. “The principal obsession of Degas’s last years,” DeVonyar and Kendall observed, “was with the dancer rather than the dance” (ibid., p. 232).
Paul Valéry recalled Degas explaining that “a picture is the result of a series of operations” (Degas Manet Morisot, Princeton, 1960, p. 6). “It is essential to do the same subject over again, ten times, a hundred times,” the artist told the sculptor and his close friend Paul-Albert Bartholomé (quoted in R. Kendall, Degas beyond Impressionism, exh. cat., The National Gallery, London, 1996, p. 258). He repeatedly drew and traced his component figures, singly or in pairs, altering and reworking them in the process, before composing them as a group.
Applying the powdery pigments of his pastels, Degas worked first in broad strokes using the side of the stick, and then utilized the tip to generate a fine, unidirectional pattern of lines that he called zébrures ("stripes"), resulting in a surface dense with colored stitches. “I am a colorist with line,” Degas declared (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2002, p. 257). Degas preserved each layering of pastel with frequent applications of fixative, prepared from a recipe known only to its inventor Luigi Chialiva and himself. The build-up of brilliant pastel textures resulted in scintillating optical mixtures, such as those seen here in the dancers' costumes, as well as subtle, hybrid tones for cooler, more subdued contrast and ambience.
The overall effect in Quatre danseuses is animated, rhythmical, and monumental; the gestures of the dancers, as if sculpted in stone, seem timeless. While these youthful performers may appear weary from their strenuous efforts—like Atalanta the champion racer in Ovid’s fable, mentioned in Degas’s sonnet—the sense of dynamism in their ensemble presentation suggests an underlying resilience and fortitude, qualities which the artist deeply admired in these conscientious, persevering women. Degas had similarly dedicated himself to his own craft, his life’s work. Forging a freedom and expressiveness in form and color to a degree not previously seen in his art—as one may also appreciate in the late production of his still-living peers Cézanne, Monet, and Renoir—Degas after 1900 created a visionary body of work that made him as much a prescient artist of the new century as he had been a steadfast, astute, and insightful chronicler of the old.