Boxed set of 6 notecards featuring Edgar Degas The Dancers, ca. 1899.
The incandescent, expressive colors of Edgar Degas's pastel, The Dancers, seem to vibrate off the paper. Applied in layered webs of rhythmic strokes, they achieve remarkable effects of translucency, depth, and texture. After about 1895, Degas turned more and more to pastel as his eyesight grew worse; unlike oil painting, it required little preparation, no drying time, and could be easily reworked. Over the course of his career, Degas produced almost 700 works in the medium, many featuring ballet dancers.
Degas harbored an artistic fascination with ballet, seeing in it "all that is left of the synthesized movements of the Greeks." He may have also seen in ballet analogies to his own art: highly formalized, disciplined, deeply informed by tradition, yet made to seem free and effortless. He seems to have been attracted to ballet's inherent conflict between artifice and nature: between the charmed and make-believe world of choreographed gestures, fantastic costumes, and painted scenery; and the mundane reality of young women endlessly rehearsing, waiting, stretching, and adjusting their costumes, as in The Dancers.
In this and other later works, memory and imagination, "freed from nature's tyranny," as Degas remarked, played a more dominant role than any observed event. Increasingly Degas repeated a shrinking repertory of poses and compositional ideas, obsessively recycling, rephrasing, and regrouping the same few figures studied from the model or from his own photographs or drawings. He also drew inspiration from Japanese prints (see 1951.290 and 2006.38) for The Dancers' high viewpoint and cropped, asymmetrical composition. Like many of his fellow Impressionists, his late works became more passionate and subjective, with artifice ultimately dominating nature.