Edgar Degas ( 1834 - 1917 )

Danseuse rajustant sa jupe, c. 1895

Danseuse rajustant sa jupe, c. 1895

charcoal and white chalk on toned paper
12 x 10 in. (30.4 x 25.4 cm.)
with studio stamp lower left

2ème Vente Atelier, Galerie George Petit, Paris, 11th December 1918, lot 219;
Neffe-Degandt Gallery, London; Private collection United Kingdom, acquired from the above in 1997, thence by descent.

Catalogue des Tableaux, Pastels et Dessins par Edgar Degas et provenant de son atelier, 2ème Vente, Galerie George Petit, Paris, 1919, Vol. I, p. 122.

Drawing was indispensable to Edgar Degas throughout his life. With little interest in nature and landscape, he was essentially an urban man whose main inspiration came from the human figure. From the outset he used drawing in the traditional sense, copying pictures by past and contemporary painters to absorb and distil what he saw, as well as to plan his larger paintings, but the frequency and intensity with which he drew suggests he had a deeper reverence for drawing than its mere practical application. As it was for his mentor, Jean-Auguste Ingres, for Degas, drawing was a daily exercise in self-discipline and one that he maintained all his life.

After an initial foray into history painting, he focused on scenes from contemporary life, keenly observing ballet dancers, cabaret performers, jockeys and laundresses. Degas was respectful of the various skills and demands made of them, and saw their challenges reflected in his own struggle for perfection. He took the dignity and gravity he saw in history painting and transplanted it to his own time, as Christopher Lloyd writes “Degas sought out the heroic amid the mundane and the universal amid the incidental.”    

The theme of ballerinas began in the 1870s, and remained a principal subject throughout his oeuvre. He gained a wide knowledge of classical dance, and was granted privileged access to studios to observe classes and rehearsals. The early ballet pictures were ambitious multi-figured scenes, often painted in oil. However, over the following decades he put fewer figures in his pictures, often shown in a quiet moment backstage or in the stage wings. For these intimate portraits Degas increasingly turned to softer media such as charcoal and pastel, keenly contrasting the contours of the figure, with the soft modulations of tone and colour in the gauze dresses.

By the 1890s Degas was working mostly from his studio due to his worsening photophobia, relying on models and his memory to create his pictures. He did not give up painting entirely but increasingly used dry media such as pastel, being easier to work with in his condition. In the present sketch, from the mid-1890s, he has used a toned paper to provide a midtone, and then worked in charcoal and white chalk to add both the darks and the lights, a drawing technique close to painting in how the areas of tone are applied. In this sense, Degas found a way to replicate the loose handling of paint while working in a dry medium, with darks and lights vigorously drawn in broad strokes, and accented with deft lines. The simplicity and immediacy of this drawing shows the virtuosity of a man who drew daily out of pure compulsion. It was only after his death, and the subsequent studio sale in 1918 (where this drawing was sold) that the full extent of his graphic oeuvre became known.

Edgar Degas