Oil on board. Signed lower right in pale brown paint: degas. 34.8 x 26.5cms. (13 ⅝ x 10 ½ in.)
PROVENANCE: Bears the Atelier stamp verso L.657; Atelier Degas, inventory number: 842 (inventory photograph no.1832; Durand-Ruel photograph no.15344, these numbers confirmed by the Durand-Ruel archive of Durand-Ruel et Cie1); by descent through the artist’s family; Sam Salz, New York; Sale, Sotheby’s, London, 6th December 1979, lot 518.
Degas was born into a prosperous and cultivated family. He was educated in Paris in the rigorous Lycée manner and from an early age his father encouraged him to visit the Louvre and study the old masters. At the age of 18 he received formal permission to copy in the Louvre and two years later joined the -cole des Beaux Arts, where under the direction of Louis Lamothe, a disciple of Ingres, he was able to concentrate on his draughtsmanship. A series of trips to Italy during the 1850s completed his education and his first successful admission to the Salon in 1865 was with a history painting: The Misfortunes of the City of Orléans, in which the figures appear in poses redolent of classical friezes and the Italian sixteenth century masters. Degas’s focus changed rapidly soon after this and abandoning academic subjects he turned to the world around him for his subjects: portraits of his friends, scenes from the race course, the life of the cafés and most famously, the ballet. By the 1870s he had become part of the avant-garde community of artists which included Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Renoir and Sisley. Together they formed the Société Anonyme des Artistes and from 1874 began exhibiting under the title Les Impressionistes, although Degas himself always called himself a ‘Realiste’. Degas continued to show his work with this group for the next 12 years and in the last exhibition he entered ten paintings of nude bathers which created a public storm. Prolific and experimental, he created series after series of studies in all media, endlessly adapting the angle of his viewpoint and putting the discipline of his youthful training into an unswerving attention to pose and movement. Esoteric and open minded in his interests he formed a considerable collection of the works of old and contemporary masters and absorbed and then expressed in his compositions his fascination with Japanese prints and the advances of photography.
The onset of a slow decline in his eyesight made Degas increasingly introverted and misanthropic but it did not stop him working and he maintained his studio until just a few years before his death.
This fascinating and highly spontaneous example of Degas’s oil sketch technique, belongs with the studies of nudes and of dancers made in the late 1870s and early 1880s. It combines his instinctive draughtsmanship with an experimental use of oil; the outlines of the figure are sketched with a fine brush and brown paint, most expressively in tracing the angle of the neck as the head tilts back. This is a technique which can also be clearly seen in the portrait of Hortense Valpinçin of 1871, now in the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which was illustrated on the front cover of the 1988-9 monographic exhibition catalogue2. Scumbling and sweeping zigzags of paint in green and grey and then brown and blue differentiate the ground from the background and, in the white-cream oil he has used to lay out the figure’s skin, most remarkably the artist’s fingerprints are clearly visible around the chest and stomach and along the calf muscle. Comparisons are obvious with a drawing in charcoal of a seated female figure, which appeared in the 4thatelier sale: her head is also tilted back and she leans on her outstretched arms, but is studied from the side3 and Degas made a further study, of what could even be the same figure seen from above, in pastel in a work dated to around 1880 from the collection of Sydney Brown, now the Stiftung Langmatt, Baden4. This experimental technique, with its strong outlines and varied texture of paint, and indeed the type of signature also recall the monotypes Degas experimented with in the late 1870s, particularly the Sortie du bain in which he also used his finger tips to produce the pale grey tonality of the figure: ‘il a tapotée doucement du bout des doigts afin de produire le gris pale de la baigneuse..’ according to the catalogue of the 1988 exhibition3.
This oil sketch was to have been included in the 5th sale of the Atelier Degas but after four extremely successful sales, the 4th and last being held in July 1919, it was decided not to hold more and this work, along with the others listed for the 5th sale, was kept by the artist’s heirs. The red stamp on the verso is the mark placed on all the works by the artist found in the studio in December 1917 and inventoried by Joseph Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard. A second mark, in red or black, with just the artist’s name: degas was placed on all the works which were actually offered at the atelier auctions.
1. See email dated 28 September 2015 from Paul-Louis Durand-Ruel and Flavie Durand-Ruel: ‘Further to our research, we can confirmed [sic] that: DEGAS, Edgar, “Femme nue, jambs croisées, esquisse” Panneau, 35 x 26.5cms. Is n°842 of the Degas inventory made by Messieurs Durand-Ruel and Vollard in December 1917 and January 1918. It is photographed in our archives under photo n°15344 and was intended for the 5th Degas sale that, however, did not take place.’
2. See exhibition held at the Grand Palais, Paris, the Musée des Beaux Arts du Canada, Ottawa and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988-9.
3. See catalogue des Tableaux, Pastels et Dessins par Edgar Degas et provenant de son atelier don’t la 4e et dernière vente ..,, Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, 2, 3 and 4 July 1919, lot 290, p.253
4. Etude de Nu dated vers 1880 in pastel, see Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, vol.II, 1984, p.344, cat.606 (now in the Stiftung Langmatt, Baden).
5. See exhibition catalogue, Degas, Paris, Ottawa and New York, 1988-9, p.304, cat. and fig.191.