Three Studies of a Dancer, ca. 1880
black chalk, Conté crayon (?), and pink chalk, heightened with white chalk, on blue paper faded to light brown . Gift of a foundation in honor of Eugene and Clare Thaw, 2001
September 24, 2010 - January 23, 2011
Source: The Morgan Library & Museum
Degas began studying law in Paris in 1853, though he soon turned his attention to copying works in the Louvre. Later, he entered the studio of Louis Lamothe, who was a pupil of Ingres and also studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. He left Paris in July 1856 to study independently in Rome, where he filled sketchbooks and sheets with studies of models and copies of old masters. Study of a Male Nude dates from his first year in Rome and reflects the artist’s early academic efforts.
Thirty-eight sketchbooks by Degas have survived essentially intact. They cover the period between 1853 and 1886 and constitute the most significant sustained record of any Impressionist artist. The show includes two sketchbooks: one from early in Degas’ career, during his first trip to Italy, the other datable to the height of his fame in Paris. The early sketchbook contains diligent student work, such as sketches of antique statuary and copies of Renaissance frescoes and paintings. The subjects range from the whimsical to the thoughtful, with quick portraits of dinner guests, sketches of dancers, and scenes from a Turkish bath in the later notebook.
Also on view from Degas’ early years in Italy are Self-Portrait and Details of Hand and Eye (ca. 1856) and Self-Portrait (ca. 1856). These two studies in black chalk were private exercises in proficiency and discipline and remained in portfolios in the artist’s studio until after his death. Another work, Self-Portrait in a Brown Vest (1856), a more tentative exploration in oil on paper, reveals Degas’ continued use of himself as subject as he came to grasp the rudiments of portraiture.
Degas’ much-heralded explorations of dancers—in rehearsal, on stage, and at rest—began in the 1870s and intensified during the ensuing decades. This period also marked the beginning of his success as an artist. One of Degas’ principal concerns as a draftsman was analyzing the movements and gestures of the female body. On view are several drawings featuring dancers, including Three Studies of a Dancer (ca. 1880), easily recognizable as the study for the celebrated wax sculpture Little Dancer, Fourteen Years Old, depicting the young dancer Marie van Goethem. In this large sheet, the artist studied her from three different angles, attempting to understand the figure in the round in preparation for sculpting it.
Later in his career, Degas experimented with mixing drawing media and printmaking techniques as seen in Emilie Bécat at the Café des Ambassadeurs. He began the drawing in 1885 using an impression from his 1877–78 lithograph of a concert at Café des Ambassadeurs, which he extended along the bottom and right edges, and drew over in dense strokes of pastel. Significantly altering the composition of the print, he added the three female spectators in the foreground. The women’s dark silhouettes, in shades of blue and ochre, are contrasted against the bright pink dress of Emilie Bécat. Degas used the range of pastels to capture the effects of various light sources in this nocturnal scene and suggests the difference between the mundane and the magical world of the theater.