Pastel was Edgar Degas’s preferred medium late in his career. Inexpensive, light, and flexible, it allowed for endless technical experimentation and offered the aging artist a degree of manual control that the paintbrush could not. Crucially, pastel also allowed him to work simultaneously as a draftsman and colorist and thereby collapse the traditional academic distinction between line and color.
The subject of the ballet, which Degas had pioneered in the 1870s, dominated these late works. Compared to his earlier work on the theme, however, they have been stripped of any anecdotal interest, the focus no longer on behind-the-scenes specificities of dance production or its social context. Here, Degas has eliminated nearly all background information, restricting himself to the vaguest suggestion, as if filtered through the haze of memory, of a staggered series of cutout stage flats, a convenient pretext for an abstract array of colors and linear arabesques. He zooms in on his subject, concentrating on only three dancers and representing them at three-quarter length, lending them an almost ancient monumentality and gravity in the process. Rather than illustrate a specific dance or rehearsal, the poses and gestures of which might correlate to the codified lexicon of the ballet, Degas treats his dancers as elements in an abstract pictorial configuration, flattening and compressing them into a single entity whose pinwheel array of bent arms moves to some obscure, stately rhythm. In their somnolent attentiveness to their own bodies and psychological isolation from each other and the viewer, the dancers bear a striking resemblance to his late bathers.
Such echoes between subjects are not surprising given that Degas’s late work was overwhelmingly a private studio affair. His art became increasingly self-referential and introspective, as he traced, recycled, and altered his favorite motifs from drawing to drawing, allowing him to experiment with different compositional arrangements and color schemes. Typical of the artist’s late graphic techniques, Dancers began as a monochromatic charcoal drawing that he built up with as many as four or five interpenetrating layers of pastel. He applied the pastel both wet and dry, probably using fixative and steam intermittently to keep the colors pure and distinct. Evocative of the shimmering heat and artificial lighting of the theater, these highly saturated, synthetic colors were intensified through complementary, hot-and-cold contrasts, most notably between coral reds and aqua greens and between oranges and royal and powder blues. Applied in insistently vertical and diagonal striations, Degas’s pastel strokes work both to model forms and to erode the boundaries between dancers, costumes, and surrounds, so that the image appears to dissolve slowly even as it gains in material substance. Enhancing this corrosive effect, Degas also burnished areas of the pastel, forcing the medium into the interstices of the support, producing tiny pits and craters in the process. Dancers is both viscerally tactile and optical in its appeal, as Degas exploits to maximum effect the coarse, friable qualities of the medium, presenting a richly textured, densely fractured and accretive surface, one that appears to be the product of remote, ineluctable forces that are more geological or chemical than human.
The subject of the ballet became the dominant theme of Degas’s pastels in the 1890s. In these heavily textured, nearly abstract works, the artist stripped his scenes of any anecdotal content to concentrate on the movement and graceful arabesques executed by the dancers. With alternating layers of chalk and liquid fixative, the artist worked the pastel into the still-damp surface; his technique suggested that the dancers were slowly dissolving and reappearing in a shimmering array of color. Degas himself designed the frame for this pastel.
Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collections, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2013).
Jean Sutherland Boggs, Degas: [an exhibition held at the] Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 9 February-16 May 1988, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 16 June-28 August 1988, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 27 September 1988-8 January 1989, (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1988).
Nineteenth-Century Pastels, Drawings, Watercolors (Complement to Cezanne Exhibition): Princeton University Art Museum (1 Feb 1992 – 5 Apr 1992)
European Drawings from Neo-Classicism to Impressionism: Princeton University Art Museum (4 Dec 1990 – 6 Jan 1991)
Réunion des musées nationaux, Musée du Louvre (9 Feb., 1988 – 16 May, 1988);
National Gallery of Canada (16 Jun., 1988 – 28 Aug., 1988);
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (27 Sept., 1988 – 8 Jan., 1989).