Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Petites filles spartiates provoquant des garçons (Jeunes spartiates s'exerçant à la lutte)

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Petites filles spartiates provoquant des garçons (Jeunes spartiates s'exerçant à la lutte)
stamped with signature 'Degas' (Lugt 658; lower left)
oil on canvas laid down on board
19 5/8 x 12 5/8 in. (50 x 32 cm.)
Painted in 1860
Estate of the artist; Third sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 7-9 April 1919, lot 31.
Georges Viau, Paris; Estate sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 11 December 1942, lot 88.
Mica Salabert, Paris; Estate sale, Ader Tajan, Paris, 8 June 1993, lot 155.
Anon. sale, Christie's, New York, 9 November 1994, lot 4.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
P.A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Paris, 1946, vol. II, p. 36, no. 74 (illustrated, p. 37).
J. Lassaigne and F. Minervino, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Degas, Paris, 1974, p. 90, no. 87 (illustrated).
London, Thomas Agnew & Sons, Ltd., Exhibition of Pictures, Pastels and Drawings by E. Degas, April-May 1936, no. 1.

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Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco

Lot Essay

Petites filles spartiates provoquant des garçons is one of four oil studies for the heroic history painting of the same title, which resides at the National Gallery in London (Lemoisne, no. 70). Degas began work on the painting following his return to Paris after a three-year sojourn in Italy. While in Italy, he was exposed to the great masters Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and Andre Mantegna. The young artist was also an admirer of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Jacques-Louis David, in particular their monumental portraits and scenes from Greek mythology.
The subject of the young Spartans exercising is undoubtedly rooted in Degas’ rich appreciation of history. One of the artist’s notebooks from this period contains the inscription, “Young girls and young boys wrestling on the plane tree grove, under the eyes of the aged Lycurgus alongside some mothers” (quoted in R. McMullen, Degas, His Life, Times and Work, Boston, 1984, p. 103). Lycurgus was a 9th century BC Spartan leader who established the militaristic reformation of Spartan society. His social reforms included the physical training of boys and girls alongside one another. Degas had a classical education and read Latin and Greek throughout his life. He would have known the original description of Spartan youth in Plutarch as well as the eighteenth-century French Voyage du Jeune Anacharsis en Grèce, from which the following is extracted:
“The girls of Sparta were not educated like those of Athens: they were not obliged to remain at home, to
spin, to abstain from wine and from rich food: rather, they were taught to dance, to sing, to wrestle with one another, to race along the beach, to hurl the javelin or throw quoits, to perform all their exercises unveiled and half-naked, in the presence of kings, the magistrates, and all the citizens, including the boys whom they stimulated to glory, either by their example, or by flattering praise, or by stinging sarcasm” (A. Forge and R. Gordon, Degas, New York, 1988, p. 55).
The two girls in the present work appear in the left foreground of the National Gallery version. Their posture and expression are the same, although perhaps in deference to the anticipated sensibilities of his fin-de-siècle audience in the final version, Degas covered their loins with brief, open-sided skirts. Having worked on the large version for at least twenty years, Degas kept it on an easel in his studio. As Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge have explained, “The Petites filles Spartiates is by far the most important of Degas’ historical pictures. He worked on it over a period of years, the very period during which he was discovering himself as a painter. The discoveries are rehearsed in the painting itself. Not surprisingly, he treasured it in later years” (ibid., p. 45).

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