Dancer (Préparation en dedans), c.1885

by Edgar Degas


DIMENSIONS: (unframed) 13.25 x 9 inches (33.66 x 22.86 cm)
SIGNATURE: Inscribed (upper right), stamped (lower left), inscribed (verso)
MEDIUM: Charcoal on paper

The dancer is preparing for a movement known as a rond de jambe à terre, ‘in which one leg describes a semicircle on the floor. “En dedans” specifies that the movement is from front to back…“Préparation” is the movement leading to (preparing for) the “rond de jambe” and it is not normally followed by “en dedans” as Degas writes it; the “en dedans” belongs to the “rond de jambe”.


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    Here Edgar Degas portrays this young woman as she builds up momentum in order to galvanise a turn or jump that will spin her around and away from us towards the right, a series of events lasting just a few seconds. Practical considerations, therefore, place this drawing in an even more extreme category than others, as the definitively unstable position in Dancer could not have been maintained artificially for the benefit of the artist and was not easily reconstituted at will.

    Yet as multiple contours around legs and torso reveal, the model appears to have repeated the action for Degas a number of times, while he struggled to draw the virtually un-drawable. The extremity of tasks he now set himself challenged the foundation of Degas’s draughtsmanship.

    Degas’ charcoal drawings of single dancers engaged in ballet exercises often show signs of ‘pentimento’, as the artist tried to quickly capture the position of a leg or arm in motion, and may be counted among his most immediate and spontaneous drawings. Many of these drawings also have annotations in the artist’s hand.

    About half of Degas’ total oeuvre are ballet subjects, a theme he first began to treat regularly in the early 1870’s, and which he continued to study in hundreds of paintings, drawings, pastels, sculptures, prints and photographs right up until the very end of his long career. In his drawings of dancers, Degas was to develop a huge repertoire of poses, which he used and reused in his paintings and sculptures. These drawings were made both behind the scenes at the Opéra itself and, more frequently, from the model posed in his studio. He appears to have been much less interested in the actual performances than in the dancers themselves, who are often portrayed at rest or exercising behind the scenes. Degas seems to have had a natural affection for these little dancers, known as the ballet ‘rats’; girls from poor families who entered the Opéra at the ages of seven or eight and spent ten or more years in classes, training for the corps de ballet. He studied and drew their long and arduous hours of practice, and seems to have sympathized with them and admired their dedication.

    The Atelier Degas, Paris, with the atelier stamp (Lugt 657) stamped on the verso;
    The third Vente Degas, Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, 7-9 April 1919, part of lot 102, sold with three other drawings for 1,450 francs;
    Paul Cassirer, Berlin;
    Acquired by a private collector in the 1920s
    Thence by descent to a private collection, Germany;
    Private Collection, United Kingdom

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    Degas was born on July 19, 1834 in Paris. In 1855-56, Degas studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He lived in Italy from 1854 to 1859 where he studied the Italian fifteenth century Renaissance.

    From the nineteenth century, he was influenced by academic painter J. A. D. Ingres, following the poussiniste belief in line as the basis of form in painting (rather than colour as was believed by the rubenistes.­)

    Degas’ first paintings were portraits and historical scenes – regarded highly by the establishment at the time – marked by a strictness of composition. But as he absorbed the perception of his surroundings and of the everyday life of man, Degas’s later work in the 1860s allied him with the Impressionists the following decade.

    Fascinated by the diversity and activity of city life, he painted the ever-changing aspects of the Paris of his day (its streets, theatres, cafés, and race tracks), re-creating the atmosphere of a capitalist city from the eyes of the flaneur. Degas depicts people’s characteristic behaviour and appearance, born of the particular conditions of their work and of everyday occurrences. Focusing on the “occupational” gesture, he poses subjects with a business that combines movement and beauty.

    A type of nineteenth-century humanist, Degas focuses great attention to his subjects (often members of the lower classes) and asserts the aesthetic meaningfulness of their ordinary lives. Particularly memorable are his many ballet scenes, conveying the festive and magnetic atmosphere of the theatre. While revealing beauty, the artist as an objective and subtle observer captures the parallel exhausting, monotonous labour hidden behind the elegant spectacle.

    A displaced composition (asymmetric and with the dynamic, fragmentary quality of a motion-picture frame), precise and supple lines, unexpected foreshortenings, and active interplay of figure and space give Degas’ works a combination of spontaneity with precise calculation.

    His works from the 1870s show a subtle restraint of colour, developing to gradually augment with the effects created by strong artificial light. The works of the 1880s and 1890s, depicting ballet dancers and nudes at their toilette, executed primarily in pastel, take on a tense quality – the view through the peephole, voyeurism.

    From the late 1880s to the beginning of the 20th century Degas cast a great deal of work in sculpture. In his figures of dancers, bathers, and horses Degas strove to achieve a plastic expressiveness in conveying fleeting motion and the sharpness and unexpectedness of a pose, while preserving the figure’s plastic wholeness and clear-cut quality.

    The artist died in September 1917.

    Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, Degas: Master of French Art, 2008-2009, no.59;
    London, Royal Academy of Art Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement. 17 September – 11 December 2011


    Jane Kinsman. Degas: The Uncontested Master. Exhibition catalogue, Canberra, 2008-2009, pp 132 and 138, Cat. No. 59;
    Richard Kendall and Jill Devonyar. Degas and the Ballet: Picturing movement. Exhibition catalogue, London 2011. p 139, Cat. No. 54

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