EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
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EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
4 More
Property of an Important Collector
EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)

Chanteuse de café concert

EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
Chanteuse de café concert
signed 'Degas' (lower left)
pastel over monotype on joined paper laid down on board
6 ¾ x 6 3/8 in. (17 x 16.2 cm.)
Executed in 1879
Estate of the artist; Fourth sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 2 July 1919, lot 301.
Galerie Durand-Ruel et Cie., Paris (acquired at the above sale).
Thalia Westcott Millett, New York (acquired from the above, 30 September 1919).
Stephen C. Millett Jr., Washington, D.C. (gift from the above, 1935, until at least 1968).
Anon. sale, Christie's, New York, 11 May 1989, lot 105.
Private collection, Europe (acquired at the above sale); sale, Sotheby's, New York, 13 November 1997, lot 134.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
P.A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Paris, 1946, vol. II, p. 304, no. 538 (illustrated, p. 305).
E.P. Janis, Degas Monotypes: Essay, Catalogue & Checklist, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, 1968, no. 37 (illustrated; dated circa 1877-1879).
F. Russoli and F. Minervino, L'opera completa di Degas, Milan, 1970, p. 113, no. 568 (illustrated; dated circa 1879).
New York, Charles E. Slatkin Galleries, Renoir. Degas: A Loan Exhibition of Drawings, Pastels, Sculptures, November-December 1958, no. 44b.

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Edgar Degas’ images of contemporary Parisian life—the dancers, drinkers and merry-makers that populated the French city in the last decades of the nineteenth century—embody the popular Impressionist motif of modern life. Degas exhibited with the Impressionist group between 1874-1886, but his working methods set him apart. Rather than adopting the Impressionist emphasis on plein air painting, as championed by Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Degas cleaved to the lessons learnt at the École des Beaux-Arts, and remained rooted in the studio. His unconventional exploration of materials and methods transform his images of contemporary life into studies of material and motion. The present work exemplifies Degas’ unflinching depiction of the female form and rigorous technical experimentation.
Degas is known for his incisive, psychologically complex depictions of dancers, bathers, grisettes (working-class women who flirted with prostitution), laundresses, and shop assistants. Part of his decades-long study of contemporaneous womanhood, this work is one of several investigating a prominent figure in Parisian nightlife: the chanteuse, or singer, who performed at the popular café-concert. With stages frequented not just by singers but acrobats and dancers, raucous café-concerts offered bawdy entertainment to a mix of social classes. Degas, together with his contemporaries Edouard Manet and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, found in these fashionable establishments the opportunity to explore the grit and glamor of the fin-de-siècle’s shifting social landscape. Unlike Manet, who cast his eye upon the patrons and servers, or Lautrec’s frenetic renderings of audience and entertainers alike, Degas focused almost exclusively on the female performers. From 1875, he created upwards of forty pastels and prints that capture these entertainers and their acts (R. Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Society, New Haven, 1988, p. 81).
The present work provides an arresting view of one such chanteuse. The singer’s open mouth, full figure and outstretched arms recall those in several of Degas’ well-known lithographs and oil paintings of the same subject, including for example The Art Institute of Chicago’s Au café-concert (Lemoisne, no. 688). Likely depicting one of his favored stage darlings Thérésa (Emma Valadon) or Emélie Bécat, Chanteuse de café-concert offers an unusually intimate view of a chanteuse. The tightly focused scene catches her mid-song, performing choreographed gestures. Degas focuses on the singer’s bodily contortions beneath the surface glamor, a duality that recalls a contemporaneous critic’s description of one such celebrated performer: “she opens her mouth and out comes the…most delicate…voice there is” (quoted in ibid., p. 83).
Degas’ focus is here not just on contemporary performance, but on indications of place and atmosphere. Each café-concert had a particular clientele, each its own unique caché. The exclusive Les Ambassadeurs was a favorite of both Degas and Manet; that it is the setting for Chanteuse de café-concert is suggested in part by its similarities with Le café-concert des Ambassadeurs (Lemoisne, no. 405; Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon), as each image depicts a female performer garbed in a red gown, silhouetted against cream columns and illuminated by the glowing orbs of gas lighting. Hollis Clayson sees Degas’ café-chanteuses as markers of the artist’s fascination with modernization, and his depiction of modern lighting (which reference the city’s groundbreaking adoption of gas and electric lighting in the late 1870s) as “link[ing] pictorial modernism to technological modernity” (Degas: Strange New Beauty, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018, p. 85). The lights in the present work thus frame the singer’s head with the unforgiving brightness of modern commercial lighting, calling attention to the technology that made this manner of night leisure possible in the first place.
Executed in 1879, Chanteuse de café-concert represents a pivotal moment in Degas’ career, as the artist transitioned from the precise naturalism of his early oil paintings to the looser technique of the 1880s when pastels became his preferred medium. Here, the artist has drawn with pastels over an ink armature created by the monotype process. Degas immersed himself in this malleable technique for a period of ten years (1876-1886). Using black printers ink on a metal plate, he would scrape and wipe the fluid to craft the desired scene (ibid., pp. 14-16). This typically produces only one clear print; Degas, however, would run the plate through the press a second time, creating a bleached “cognate” that altered the original play of light and shadow. It is primarily these “cognates” that he employed as the foundation for his pastels, drawing over the print to experiment with contrasting translucent and opaque color. The juxtaposition of the deep black of the night sky against the singer’s luminous face in Chanteuse de café-concert is made possible by this technique.

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