Ballet dancers are undoubtedly the best-known iconographic theme in Degas’ production. But let us not be deceived by the beauty of the subject. Degas is not concerned with the charm of the ballerinas, nor does he wish to celebrate their grace. By his own admission, he studied dancers in the same way one would study an animal, or an automaton. He observes the movements and contortions to which the dancers subject their slender bodies, portraying their anatomies as if they were galloping horsed. His gaze is curious, ruthless, conceding on the bare essentials to beauty, aiming instead to capture all the freshness of truth, the immediacy of a gesture. For the initial idea he often started from a photographic image. Degas collected photographic postcards, sometimes of his own making, willingly aligning himself with the new art, which was looked upon with suspicion by many of his contemporaries.
The work on display belongs to the late period of the artist’s production and bears witness to Degas’s personal and highly effective use of pastels. Especially in these years, he preferred this technique for dealing with his failing eyesight, which made it very difficult to work with oil paint. As usual, the compositional cropping is surprising. Degas excludes part of the dancer on the left from the visual space, a choice which, in addition to accentuating the immediacy of the scene, guides the viewer’s eye beyond the edges of the pictorial support, suggesting a wider and more complex spatiality than what is contained by the painting.