Painted circa 1886, Trois danseuses en rose depicts ballet dancers before a performance, getting ready to appear on the stage. Degas's lifelong interest in dance developed in the 1860s, when as a young man he regularly attended the ballet and other performances such as opera, café-concerts and the circus (see fig. 1). He was attracted to the spectacle and excitement of live entertainment and found in it an endless source of inspiration, sketching the performers from nature. In this manner he was able to study both the natural unguarded gestures of dancers at rest and the stylised movements of classical ballet. Degas was fascinated not only by the public spectacle of ballet performances, but also by the more informal situations around them: the behind-the-scenes world of the rehearsal room or the dance class, the dancers' preparation for and tension before a performance, and the more relaxed, casual moments that followed afterwards.
Throughout Degas' career, his treatment of this subject underwent a radical metamorphosis. In the later decades, the artist's visits to the ballet became less frequent and he began working increasingly from models in his studio in the rue Victor Massé. Whereas visits to the ballet had only afforded Degas fleeting demonstrations of the dancers' choreographed movements, the privacy of the studio presented him with the opportunity to pose a model in his preferred way. Dating from the mid-1880s, the present work reflects a transformation that Degas's art underwent around this time. Moving away from the linear style of his early career, he adopted a freer, more spontaneous brushwork that emphasized vibrant color effects, a style that would culminate in his late pastels (fig. 3). The figure of the central dancer is rendered with attention to detail that characterizes his early works, while the other two dancers and the background show a looser treatment.
The simplified, almost abstract rendering of the background makes it impossible to identify the setting of the scene we are witnessing, although the green area against which the figures are seen probably represents a stage set; the three dancers, who are standing backstage, are shown in a moment of anticipation, as they are about to enter the stage. While he was fascinated with the formal movements of the dancers that he observed at the Opéra, the vast majority of the artist's production focused on the ballerinas in the foyers or backstage. Degas developed his complex compositions of several dancers, such as the present work and a related oil Danseuses en rose (fig. 2), from numerous preliminary studies of isolated figures. These studies were often executed in charcoal on tracing paper and then transferred onto a further sheet or painted on canvas, where they were combined with other figures to form a group. The dancers were often first drawn or painted nude and subsequently 'clothed' with tutus, shoes and other dancing paraphernalia, examples of which Degas kept in the studio. From these initial studies Degas would construct a dramatic and vivid scene without leaving the privacy of the studio.
Around the time he painted Trois danseuses en rose, Degas was still a frequent visitor to the new Opéra in Paris, designed by Charles Garnier, which was inaugurated in January 1875. It was here that he met many of the dancers who became the subject of his oils, pastels and drawings. Discussing Degas's depictions of dancers executed around this time, Jill De Vonyar and Richard Kendall wrote: "Degas had come to know many of the dancers at the Opéra intimately: he had devoted nearly half his professional life to an extended study of their daily routines and to putting what he observed onto paper and canvas, or into wax and clay. Their work sustained a great deal of his own, a dependence noted in reviews of the Impressionist exhibitions, where one critic suggested in 1879 that Degas had himself become 'one of those remarkable coryphées,' and another hailed him the following year, possibly for the first time, as 'the painter of dancers'" (Jill De Vonyar & Richard Kendall, Degas and the Dance, New York, 2002, p. 195).
Oil on canvas
Glasgow and London, Alex Reid & Lefevre Gallery, Works by Edgar Degas, 1928
38 1/2 by 21 in. 98 by 53 cm
J.B. Manson, The Life and Works of Edgar Degas, 1927, illustrated pl. 67
International Studio, New York, November 1929, p. 86 (Durand-Ruel advertisement)
P.A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, vol. III, Paris, 1946, no. 885, illustrated p. 517
Lillian Browse, Degas Dancers, Boston, 1949, no. 182, illustrated (as dating from circa 1885-7)
J. Paul Getty, The Joys of Collecting, New York, 1965, illustrated in color p. 136
Franco Russoli and Fiorella Minervino, L'Opera completa di Degas, Milan, 1970, no. 824, illustrated p. 123
Burton B. Fredericksen, Catalogue of the Paintings in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 1972, no. 149, illustrated
Burton B. Fredericksen, J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, 1975, p. 133
Susan Barnes Robinson, The French Impressionists in Southern California, Los Angeles, 1984, p. 34
Estate of the artist (sold: Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 1ère Vente Degas, 1918, lot 60)
Edouard Riché, Neuilly-sur-Seine
The Lefevre Gallery (Alex Reid & Lefevre Ltd.), London (before 1927)
Enrique Héniot, Paris
Durand-Ruel, New York (acquired from the above on June 1, 1929 and until 1949)
Gérard Frères, Paris
Sale: Galerie Charpentier, Paris, March 12, 1956, lot 40
J. Paul Getty, California (acquired at the above sale)
J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu (acquired from the above and sold: Sotheby's, London, November 28, 1989, lot 17)
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner