Femme nue assise stamped with the signature 'Degas' (Lugt 658; lower left) charcoal on paper, extended at the lower margin 61 x 42.2cm (24 x 16 5/8in). Executed circa 1896
PROVENANCE The artist's studio sale, part III; Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 7-9 April 1919, lot 274. Edmond Céria (acquired at the above sale). Anon. sale, Christie's, New York, 5 November 1982, lot 304.
LITERATURE P.A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Paris, 1946, vol.III, p.698, no.1200. A. Wofsy, Degas' Atelier at Auction, Paintings, Pastels and Drawings Sales III and IV - 1919, San Francisco, 1989, no.274 (illustrated p.206).
The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by Brame & Lorenceau.
The present drawing is from a small group of profoundly insightful life studies made late in Degas' career. Having gained a mastery of the medium, the artist is now able to strip away, in this study quite literally, the superficial elegance and refinement of ballet to present the dancer as an intense psychological portrait and a commentary on the weight of the human condition. As Jean Sutherland Boggs notes, 'When we peel our way underneath the dazzling colors of Degas' late paintings and pastels of dancers, we finally reach the barest bones - his studies of those dancers nude. Their nudity is even less sensual and idyllic than those of his bathers - partly because their very athleticism seems to destroy such possibilities. They are attractive even when they sit, in positions which involve an exaggerated strain. He used shadow, both inside and outside the contours of their bodies, to emphasise the conflicting pressures.' (J. Sutherland Boggs, Drawings by Degas, exh. cat., Saint Louis, City Art Museum, and elsewhere, 1966-67, pp.214-215). Indeed, it is the contrast between the quick, jagged accents of these shadows and the long, assured sweeps of charcoal delineating the figure that provides much of the tension in the present drawing.
In 1890 Degas moved to a new studio in the rue Victor Massé, and the early part of the following decade marked a significant shift in his lifelong fascination with the ballet. He did not renew his backstage pass to the Opéra de Paris, which had allowed him regular access to study the dancers on stage, in rehearsal and at rest. Instead he increasingly worked from models arranged in his new studio, using props and costumes to recreate scenes and poses from the stage that he wanted to explore. Whereas in his earlier drawings he had captured the dancers from the wings in moments of exaltation and exhaustion, in these later studies his greater control of the composition allows him to concentrate on the deeper psychological elements of each figure: 'Through these fragile figures, Degas mourns the expectations, the vitality, and the courage of his dancers of the past. But the pathos he arouses is not in criticism of the dancers, but of a world that no longer permits them to determine their destiny. The figures have been drained of will' (J. Sutherland Boggs, Degas, exh. cat., Paris, Grand Palais, and elsewhere, 1988-89, under no. 377).
The pose of the dancer seated on a bench with one knee drawn up to her chest is one that Degas revisited several times, both in pastel and oil on canvas, notably in a pastel Au foyer de la danse in the Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo (Lemoisne, op. cit., no.1201 [fig.1]) and a painting of Danseuses au foyer now in the City Art Museum, Saint Louis. In each case the dancer is to one side of the rehearsal room or in the wings, deep in thought.