In the late 1890s a number of dance troupes from Eastern Europe visited Paris and performed at the Moulin Rouge, the Folies-Bergère, the Casino de Paris and at a brasserie near Degas’s Montmartre home. This pastel may have been one of three showing ‘dancers in Russian costume’ that Degas showed a visitor to his studio in 1899, although these dancers are probably Ukrainian rather than Russian. Wearing traditional folk dress and stomping on the ground, they are very different from the classical ballerinas he had drawn and painted for almost four decades.
The drawing is on tracing paper, which allowed Degas to reverse individual figures and combine dancers in different arrangements. He added a strip of paper to the bottom of the sheet so he could include the lower leg of the dancer closest to us. The simple, bold outlines convey dynamic movement and the thickly applied pastel creates rich surfaces made up of many colours.
In the late 1890s a number of dance troupes from Eastern Europe were in Paris, where they performed at the Moulin Rouge, the Folies-Bergères, the Casino de Paris and at other less famous venues, including the Brasserie des Martyrs in Montmartre, near Degas’s home. The reputation of these performances was also enhanced by short black-and-white films made by the Lumière brothers, which Degas may have seen. It is likely that these visiting dancers, and those drawn by Degas, were Ukrainian, rather than Russian.
Degas may have been working on this large pastel in 1899, when he showed three pastels of dancers to Julie Manet, the daughter of Berthe Morisot, who visited his studio on 1 July. The drawing is on tracing paper, which allowed Degas to combine dancers in different arrangements and also to reverse them. The central dancer (whose face we see) is the reversed figure from an earlier charcoal and pastel drawing, also on tracing paper, at the Berwick Museum and Art Gallery.
You can see where Degas added a strip of paper to the bottom of the sheet while working on the drawing so he could include the lower leg of the dancer closest to us. This addition raised her from the ground and also allowed him to show the hem of her dress. Degas focused on the overall design of the picture and not on the individual identity of the dancers – we only see one, broadly sketched, face. He uses bold outlines and shapes to convey dynamic movement.
The surface of the paper is heavily worked, as Degas applied the pastel thickly with repeated strokes to create highly layered areas made up of many rich hues. In her diary entry about her visit to Degas’s studio, Julie Manet records how he described these pastels as ‘orgies of colour'. The pitted surface – a distinctive feature of his late pastel technique – was caused by previous layers of wetted pastel forming small clumps of pigment under the fixative. As Degas applied more pastel, the surface became increasingly textured. Repeated use of fixative risked dulling the pastel, so he did not fix the final touches of pure colour, which you can see in the hair ribbons and in the red, yellow and blue flowers of the garlands. This further increased the picture’s fragility.
Wearing traditional folk costumes and stomping on the ground with their boots, these peasant dancers are very different from the classical ballerinas Degas had spent almost four decades drawing and painting. He also shows that the dance is performed outdoors, in a rural setting, not on stage. Classical ballet, which had its origins in the royal court, was based upon disciplined, graceful upward movement, but the emphatic gestures and movements of these earth-bound dancers recall more archaic rituals. The dozen or so pastels of Russian dancers that Degas made show how even late in life he could take on new subjects and develop bold techniques.
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