A trio of ballet dancers, each adorned in diaphanous white muslin tutus with jewel-coloured sashes, are silently immersed in a variety of activities as they rehearse their steps, illuminated by the pale Parisian light that floods through the expansive windows behind them. Among the very first depictions of dancers that Edgar Degas created, Danseuses dans une salle d'exercice (Trois Danseuses), painted in 1873, introduces the themes and motifs that would preoccupy the artist for the rest of his life: the dancer and the rehearsal studio, movement and light, artifice and spontaneity. Using lavish brushstrokes of thick oil paint, Degas has revelled in portraying the gossamer fabric of the dresses and the curtains behind, subtly accentuating the play of light and shadow that dominates this masterfully composed scene. Set against the instantly recognisable grey roofs of Paris’s iconic skyline, this is a painting that not only encapsulates Degas’ oeuvre, but, with its radical subject matter, execution, embrace of modernity and the city itself, it embodies Impressionism as a whole.
The theme of the dancers had entered Degas' work almost incidentally. A frequent attendee of the Paris Opéra, at the very beginning of the 1870s Degas had painted a group of works that captured the ballet from the audience, depicting, with radically cropped compositions, the orchestra and dancer-filled stage beyond (Lemoisne nos. 186, 294 & 295). Soon however, he turned away from these performances and the grand spectacle of the ballet, and began capturing the dancers by day, behind the scenes in the rehearsal studios of the Opéra. Along with Le Foyer (Lemoisne no. 297; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Le Foyer de la Danse a l’Opéra de la rue Le Peletier (Lemoisne no. 298; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), Danseuses dans une salle d'exercice ranks among the earliest depictions of this newly discovered backstage realm; a place which offered Degas numerous figures in myriad poses, both balletic as the dancers rehearsed their steps, and at ease, as they stretched, rested or adjusted their costumes.
The world into which Degas gives us a glimpse in Danseuses dans une salle d'exercice and these early dancer works was not however painted from life but was more likely composed in his studio. While later in his career, Degas was able, thanks to the privileged status of his friends, to roam the maze of corridors, stage wings and dressing roams of the Paris Opéra, at this time he didn’t enjoy this unrestricted access. He must have visited the rehearsal rooms, yet, as his letters to his friend, the collector, Albert Hecht requesting, ‘a pass for the day of the dance examination’ (Degas, quoted in J. Sutherland Boggs, Degas, exh. cat., Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1988, p. 175) show, he did not compose his scenes in situ. Instead, it is likely that the dancers came to his studio and posed for him, with Degas making endless drawings and studies which he would then transpose in various iterations into his paintings. That the present work introduces many of these essential and defining poses is testament to its significance within Degas’ oeuvre. The figure on the left stands in Fifth position, or bras en couronne, a pose that is seen time and time again in Degas’ dancer scenes. Indeed, this figure, and her companion who stands with her back to the viewer, are witnessed again in another important painting of this early period: École de danse of 1873 (Lemoisne no. 398; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
With its radical, tightly cropped composition and the striking contrasts of light and shadow, Danseuses dans une salle d'exercice has a photographic quality, appearing as a snapshot of time, an image of frozen movement. A new phenomenon of this period, photography would become an abiding interest in Degas’ art as his career progressed. Indeed, in the present work, Degas has utilised a photographic technique known as contre-jour, in which the camera is pointed directly into a light source, casting the scene’s protagonists into dramatic shadow (R. Pickvance, ‘Degas’s Dancers’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 105, no. 723, June 1963, p. 259). This was a compositional device Degas had used in a number of portraits of this period (Lemoisne nos. 303 & 385), as well as a related work, Danseuse posant chez un photographe (Lemoisne no. 447; Pushkin Fine Art Museum, Moscow). By posing his three ballet dancers in front of the expansive window in the present work, Degas has created myriad contrasts of light and dark. While the figures’ heads are thrown into shadow, the layers of diaphanous fabric of their tutus are illuminated, lending these dancers a magical, dreamy quality at odds with the banality of their rehearsal. While none of the dancers are performing on stage, this scene is far from a spontaneous depiction of figures at ease. Indeed, it is, like the ballet itself, a work of carefully constructed artifice that creates a beautiful, artistic illusion.
A testament to its importance within Degas’ oeuvre, this work was first held in the collection of Henri Rouart, the close friend and patron of the artist. An ardent collector, Rouart amassed a notable collection of late 19th and early 20th Century art that included Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Cézanne, and of course, Degas. Following Rouart’s estate sale in 1912, Danseuses dans une salle d'exercice was acquired by the Comtesse Martine de Béhague, an eccentric heiress who, at the turn of the century, amassed an expansive collection that ranged from Medieval objects to Impressionist art, all of which she assembled in her opulent Paris home, the Hotel Béhague, now the Romanian embassy. Known for sailing her yacht, the Nirvana, in the Mediterranean in search of works of art, she left her collection to her nephew, Hubert de Ganay, and this work has remained in the same family until the present day.