Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Property from the Estate of Andre Newburg, Esq.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Trois danseuses

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Trois danseuses
stamped with signature 'Degas' (Lugt 658; lower left)
charcoal and pastel on joined paper laid down on board
28 3/8 x 21 5/8 in. (72 x 54.8 cm.)
Drawn circa 1897
Estate of the artist; First sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 6-8 May 1918, lot 145.
Giboier Collection, Paris.
Galerie Thannhauser, Lucerne.
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner, circa 1927.
Der Kunstwanderer, February 1927, p. 252 (illustrated).
F. Russoli, L'opera completa di Degas, Milan, 1970, p. 135, no. 1098 (listed as a variant).
P.-A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, New York, 1984, vol. III, p. 742, no. 1279 (illustrated, p. 743).
Lucerne, Galerie Thannhauser, Maîtres français du XVIIIe et du XIXe siècles, 1927, no. 68 (illustrated).
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (on extended loan, May 1981-March 2019).

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Jessica Fertig
Jessica Fertig

Lot Essay

“The ballet dancer deserved a special painter, in love with the white gauze of her skirts, with the silk of her tights, with the pink touch of her satin slippers, their soles powdered with resin,” the theater director Jules Claretie wrote in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. “There is one artist of exceptional talent whose exacting eye has captured on canvas or translated into pastel or watercolor—and even, on occasion, sculpted—the seductive bizzarreries of such a world. It is Monsieur Degas, who deals with the subject as a master, and knows precisely how a ribbon is tied on a dancer’s skirt, the wrinkle of the tights over the instep, the tension the silk gives to ankle tendons” (quoted in R. Gordon and A. Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, p. 183).
The intimate affinity and profound understanding that Edgar Degas brought to the representation of classical dance in his art resonate throughout the expressive, rhythmic arabesques and vivid pastel hues of Trois danseuses. Nearing the turn of the 20th century, after more than three decades of intensive observation and zealous studio practice, Degas remained steadfast in his devotion to the dance in his art—indeed, his love of the ballet continued to deepen and intensify during his later years, forever ensuring this theme in the public regard as his signature achievement.
In Degas’s late oeuvre, the dancer—not the nude, as most other artists might aver—took pride of place as the apotheosis of the human figure, accounting for an even higher proportion—around 75 percent—of his output, in paintings, drawings, and sculpture, than at any time before. Dancers outnumbered the nude—a theme that the artist treated in his concurrent bathers series—by almost two to one. The dancers reflected the more dynamic, public aspect of Degas’s art, while the nude, often solitary bather evoked the private, sensual dimension of the artist’s creative world. The study and representation of stylized movement had been the ground on which Degas had cultivated much of his art, and on which his work would continue to evolve and flourish. The artist, Richard Kendall wrote, “increasingly used the subject of the ballet to break new compositional ground or cross pictorial frontiers” (Degas and the Little Dancer, New Haven, 1996, p. 3).
The most elaborate of Degas's late dance compositions comprise three or four figures in concerted arrangements—similarly to Henri Matisse's Dance I, painted in 1909—as seen in the present Trois danseuses. The dancers interact in close proximity with one another—viewed close-up and in half-length, from head to hip, they fill the sheet. The artist concentrated on the graceful gestures of their arms, the tilt or turn of a head. Degas’s composition of this trio of dancers brings them into the foreground, imparting a sense of vital immediacy and presence to the wave-like sway of their blue tulle skirts, while drawing the eye to the bending contours of the young women’s raised arms and slender waists.
“The Dance generates a whole plastic world,” Paul Valéry observed in the work of Degas, with whom he became friendly during the mid-1890s. “Out of the forming, dissolving and re-forming patterns created by the same set of limbs, out of movements that echo each other at equal or harmonious intervals, comes decoration in time, just as the spatial repetition of motifs, or their symmetry, gives rise to decoration in space” (Degas Dance Drawing, Princeton, 1960, p. 16).
The lure of the dance for Degas lay fundamentally in the distant past. In 1903, Louisine Havemeyer, who had already acquired more than a dozen of Degas’s ballet pastels and drawings, visited the artist in his studio, to enquire about purchasing the sculpture Petite danseuse de quatorze ans. She later recounted part of her conversation with the artist: “I asked Degas the question—I blush to record it—a question that had often been asked me: ‘Why, Monsieur Degas, do you always do ballet dancers?’ The quick reply was: ‘Because, Madame, it is all that is left us of the combined movements of the Greeks’” (Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector, New York, 1961, p. 256).
Degas was stating in his response, as Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall have explained, “the association of his ballet subjects with the serene and timeless values of classical civilization” (Degas and the Dance, exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts, 2002, p. 235). Jeanne Fevre, the artist’s niece, reported that Degas read the Greek classics in the original; he was “passionate about the world of antiquity.” The writer Henri Hertz reported Degas to have stated that his dancers “followed the Greek tradition purely and simply, almost all antique statues representing the movement and balance of rhythmic dance” (quoted in ibid., p. 238). One may liken the figures in Trois danseuses—just as Degas may have regarded them—to the classical notion of the Three Graces in antiquity, the handmaidens of Venus and the personifications of love and beauty.
The three dancers are here shown against a painted theater backdrop depicting a hillside landscape, with tall trees in the middle distance. Degas summoned forth this natural setting from the pastels and monotypes that he had created during 1890-1892, following a tour by carriage from Paris to Diénay in Burgundy. The contrast of the outdoor pastoral motif with the enclosed, theatrical space evokes a mysteriously universalized, timeless dimension, imbuing this glimpse of informal, behind-the-scenes stage activity—those mundane moments of preparation and waiting which account for the largest proportion of a dancer’s daily life in the theater—with the nobility and purpose of timeless art.
Degas continued to investigate the artistic possibilities in the dance theme until the final years of his life. When his weakening eyesight no longer allowed him to paint, he continued to work on his numerous wax sculptures of dancers. Throughout Degas’s career, the subject of the dance, Kendall explained, had been “an endless dialogue between line and color [which] linked him to the past, with the Renaissance and Classical forebears he persistently cited, and with such personal idols as Ingres and Delacroix, Rubens and Poussin… The image of the dancer also gave him license to explore the monumental, decorative, and dynamic potential of the human figure in ways that resonated with his senior and junior contemporaries. Rodin, Gauguin, Lautrec, Maillol and Denis all turned to the subject in these years, while a younger breed of artists passing through Montmartre found a new stimulus in his obsessive vocabulary… Ernst Ludwig Kirchner from Dresden, Pablo Picasso from Barcelona and the native Henri Matisse watched from a distance as they reinvented the dance in the language of their own century” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2002, p. 234).
Long held in the Newburg family collection, Trois danseuses now appears on the market for the first time in more than ninety years. Olga Neuberg (née Tcherniate), born in Smolensk in 1899, was the daughter of a Russian landowner. She moved with her family to Berlin in the early 1920s, where she met Hugo Neuberg, who had fought in the Russian Imperial Army during in the First World War, and from 1920 served as a partner in the Bankhaus Comes & Co., Berlin. They married in 1926. Olga and Hugo immersed themselves in the bustling Berlin art scene during the 1920s, purchasing works from the leading gallerists Paul Cassirer and Alfred Flechtheim. From the heirs of Olga and Hugo, the Staatliche Museen. Berlin, acquired in 1997 the important Max Lieberman painting Blumenstauden am Gartnerhauschen nach Norden, 1928.

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