Danseuses jupes jaunes (Deux danseuses en jaune) is a highly-finished pastel dating from circa 1896 which shows Edgar Degas' most favoured theme, the ballet, captured in the explosive palette that marked his works from this period. Here, two dancers are shown resting against the painted theatre backdrop, one adjusting the straps and facing us, the other facing away with her hands on her back, as though stretching. This is an informal glimpse of life behind the curtain, of a world of incredible athleticism, movement and action in a rare moment of repose and respite, yet that atmosphere of informality is belied by the incredible finish of the surface, which Degas has eked out not in a mere instant, capturing an intimate moment, but instead with an incredible build-up of often hatched strokes of pastel, creating his distinctive palimpsest-like accumulation of colour. This is especially visible in the areas of shadow, for instance at the dancers' feet.
Degas himself was open about the fact that his pictures, while intended to look like snapshots showing these passing moments in the life of the ballerinas, were in fact the product of a great deal of investigation and rigorous execution. He explored the poses that he depicted at length, revisiting them again and again. By the 1890s, when Danseuses jupes jaunes (Deux danseuses en jaune) was created, he primarily used models within the confines of his studio, studying them from a variety of angles while they maintained their pose. The process of investigation is evident in a smaller pastel entitled Danseuses mauves which features essentially the same composition (Musée Faure, Aix-les-Bains).
Degas had an incredible ability to take a subject that seemed intensely, even scandalously, modern at the time and to instil it with timelessness. The make-believe realm of the theatre provided the perfect forum for such material, as many of the clues as to the era have been deliberately removed. This means that the scene in Danseuses jupes jaunes (Deux danseuses en jaune), while strikingly modern to the French nineteenth-century audience, could plausibly have shown dancers from decades earlier, or even a century later. Meanwhile, the dancers' poses while they stretch themselves or adjust their outfits manages to appear as an ephemeral detail, a mere transitory moment of preparation before a performance, yet is filled with mystery and even dignity. There is a timelessness to their positions that echoes the so-called Diane de Gabies, the celebrated statue of Artemis formerly attributed to Praxiteles and now considered a Hellenistic copy of one of his original bronzes which is in the Louvre, which shows the titular goddess adjusting the chiton at her shoulder. This gesture pierces the veil of mystery in both the case of the deity and of the dancers, revealing a deeply human side to their lives, something so everyday and yet so unseen by the majority of people that it adds to the intimate magic while also adhering to Degas' fascination with realism. This would similarly be explored in Degas' large celebrated painting, En attendant l'entrée en scène of circa 1899 (L 1267), now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., which shows various ballerinas stretching and adjusting their outfits, echoing the Diane de Gabies, before leaping into the public view.
The poses in En attendant l'entrée en scène appear to be linked to the photographs which Degas had of ballerinas which themselves provide a thrilling insight into the artist's varied working methods. With those glass plates, he was able to explore the poses of the dancers from either side, an effect that was visible similarly in some of the drawings that relate to Danseuses jupes jaunes (Deux danseuses en jaune). Proof of Degas' investigative process in creating the composition that he desired is furnished by the preparatory drawings in which he explored the positions of these dancers, several of which featured in the sales of the contents of his studio which followed his death. In the second sale, the second drawing in lot 144 and lot 207 were drawings of the left-hand figure alone, pictured naked and therefore without the straps that she is adjusting in the pose in the pastel image; the first of these shows her facing the other side, reflecting the pose. Meanwhile, lots 300 and 301 show both figures, although in the second image their positioning relative to each other has been shifted; this is also the case in lot 277 in the second sale. It can be seen that Degas was playing with a range of permutations of the composition. This becomes more evident by comparison with other pastels such as Trois danseuses en bleu (Décor de paysage), Danseuses jaunes and Trois danseuses of the same period (L 1277, 1278, 1279 respectively), which feature an additional dancer in the foreground. As Degas explained, despite his fascination with capturing a sense of movement in his pictures, 'There was never a less spontaneous art than mine. What I do is the outcome of reflection and the study of the great masters... Of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament... I know nothing' (Degas, quoted in G. Adriani, Degas: Pastels, Oil Sketches, Drawings, London, 1985, p. 58).
Degas' studies of the human figure, and especially of dancers, also resulted in his making small sculptures, maquettes in which he would capture the poses of some of the figures and which he often used as a form of aide-mémoire. Thus, while the position of the feet is different, the pose of the right-hand figure can be seen to have been emulated in two of his sculptures, one showing a dancer in her costume and one without it, her arched arms behind her and her hands on her kidneys as here. This allowed Degas further occasions to investigate these positions from a range of perspectives, a notion that is echoed in the different angles visible in the various drawings and in Danseuses jupes jaunes (Deux danseuses en jaune) itself. Degas' notes also reveal the lengths to which he would go in order to capture his subjects from various angles: 'Set up tiers right round the room so as to become accustomed to drawing things from below and above. Only allow things to be painted as seen in a mirror, to instil a hatred of the trompe-l'oeil' (Degas, quoted in ibid., p. 77).
This sense of deliberately avoiding trompe-l'oeil is evident in the rich saturation of colour in Danseuses jupes jaunes (Deux danseuses en jaune), where yellows and greens cover so much of the sheet. This totality owes itself in part to Degas' own fascination with the art of Japan, with the Ukiyo-e images of the so-called 'Floating World' of courtesans and actresses that had come to obsess so much of the avant-garde in France during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. In his own way, Degas was regarding the French equivalent of the world that Hiroshige and Hokusai had explored in their pictures; similarly, the raised line of perspective in Danseuses jupes jaunes (Deux danseuses en jaune) recalls Japanese prints as well as recalling the platforms that Degas mentioned in his studio; it was also a reality on stages in real life, whose angled nature allowed Degas to exploit immersive senses of perspective in his works.
As he had himself confessed, Degas was an artist who relied on observation and intense study in his works. He drew almost compulsively, recording similar scenes again and again to differing effects, often returning to similar compositions that he had explored before, adding new variations either in colour or in arrangement, hence the relationship between this work and, say, Danseuses mauves. In a sense, he was echoing the discipline of the dancers themselves, who were in constant répétition, or rehearsal. Répétition was precisely the technique that allowed Degas to reveal the world in the way that he intended; he summed up his ethos succinctly when he declared, 'The real traveller is the man who never arrives' (Degas, quoted in ibid., p. 91). By the 1890s, pastel had become his most favoured medium as it allowed him a variety of techniques and, crucially, the chance to build up complex layered colour schemes, as is evident here. Some of the constituent colours that peek through and whose combinations have been used to render various effects seem, seen one by one, a far cry from the finished effect. This is evident, for instance, in the areas of shadow and light, for instance the turquoise area by the right-hand dancer's left leg. By creating layer upon layer of streaked pastel, Degas often managed to create complex plays of colour with a great density and radiance. Degas' attention to colour effects can be seen in a more striking way by the contrast between the yellow skirts of the title and the background, be it the floor or the green of the painted landscape of the screen behind them.
This landscape is an important device within the picture, and indeed within the performative universe of Degas' dancers. One of Degas' earliest theatrical and ballet-related pictures had been La source painted in 1866-68 and now in the Brooklyn Museum, New York. In that picture, Degas had shown the ballerina Eugénie Fiocre within an elaborate landscape, with her ballet pumps discarded and her feet in a pool of water, with a horse taking a drink by her side. While this reflected the incredibly extravagant sets that were designed for the ballet La source, it also deliberately blurs the boundaries between the fictitious world of the narrative and the reality of the theatre and stage. In Danseuses jupes jaunes (Deux danseuses en jaune), by contrast, Degas has shown the floor of the stage and has underlined the artifice of the backdrop in order to heighten the viewer's awareness that this is an image of a theatrical world. Of course, the fact that Degas was creating pictures such as this within the confines of his own studio adds another perplexing level to this interplay between reality and artifice. In a way, the backdrop can be seen as a puncturing of the Impressionist tradition of landscape painting, here devoid of sensations but instead hanging, a purposefully ersatz vision; on the other hand, its very artifice heightens the sense of pictorial honesty and therefore of demystification that lies at the heart of Degas' work, which had impelled him to hope for a Salon of Realism a decade earlier and which had aligned him with the Impressionists themselves.
It is that sense of realism, of peeking behind the veil at the true nature of the world, that is emphasised in Degas' views of the world behind the scenes of the ballet, meaning that there is a parallel between his subject matter and his own artistic ethos. Here, he is stripping away the sense of formality, of performance, and is investigating the way that we view the world both through our eyes and through the interpretative medium of art, be it in the form of pictures or of ballet. Ultimately, Degas' interest is formal in the sense that he was fascinated by movement, by capturing a sense of life and motion, even through the depiction of dancers at rest. 'The dancer is nothing but a pretext for drawing,' he explained (Degas, quoted in R. Kendall (ed.), Degas by himself: drawings prints paintings writings, London, 1987, p. 311). It is a subject that allowed him to explore his own ideas while also filling his works with colour and decoration, adding a richness to the surface of pictures such as Danseuses jupes jaunes (Deux danseuses en jaune), with its colour-filled sheet. As he told the dealer Ambroise Vollard, 'they call me the dancers' painter. They do not understand that the dancer has been no more for me than an excuse to paint pretty materials and convey movements' (Degas, quoted in G. Adriani, Degas: Pastels, Oil Sketches, Drawings, London, 1985, p. 82). Perhaps he best described his fascination with these dancers, with the artifice of their performances and the elegance of their movements, in the last lines of one of his own sonnets:
'Leap, soar! you priestesses of grace,
For in you the Dance is embodied now,
Heroic and remote. From you we learn
Queens are made of distance and dyed flesh' (Degas, quoted in R. Gordon & A. Forge, Degas, London, 1988, p. 192).