Preparation pour la classe
Pastel on paper: 25.5(h) x 19.6(w) in / 64.8(h) x 49.8(w) cm
Signed lower right: Degas
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1834 - Paris - 1917
Préparation pour la classe
Signed lower right: Degas
Pastel on paper: 25 ½ x 19 5/8 in / 64.8 x 49.8 cm
Frame size: 35 ½ x 29 ½ in / 90.2 x 74.9 cm
Painted circa 1882-85
M Paulin, Paris;
his sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 22nd May 1919, lot 40, illus.;
where jointly purchased by Durand-Ruel & Cie, Paris and New York and
Knoedler & Co, Paris and New York;
from which purchased in November 1919 by Mr and Mrs Martin A Ryerson, Chicago;
by whom bequeathed to The Art Institute of Chicago, 1937, inv. no.1937.1032;
by which sold at Sotheby’s New York, 17th May 1990, lot 8
Sotheby’s London, 30th June 1998, lot 10
Private collection, Europe
Sotheby’s New York, 10th May 2000, lot 12
Richard Green Gallery, London, 2000
Private collection, USA
Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, Degas in the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago and New York 1984, pp.148-150, no.71, illus. in colour
James Bolivar Manson, The Life and Works of Edgar Degas, London 1927, p.47
PA Lemoisne, Degas et Son Oeuvre, vol. III, 1883-1908, Paris 1947, p.589, no.1012, illus.
Lillian Browse, Degas Dancers, London 1949, no.187, illus.
Paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago: a Catalogue of the Picture Collection, 1961, no.121
Frederick A Sweet, ‘Great Chicago collectors’, Apollo, no.84, September 1966, pp.190-207
Fiorella Minervino and Jacques Lassaigne, Toute l’oeuvre peint de Degas, Paris 1974, p.125, no.858, illus.
Supplement to Paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago: a Catalogue of the Picture Collection, Chicago 1971, cat. by Sandra Grung, p.28
Janice J Feldstein, ed., The Art Institute of Chicago: 100 Masterpieces, Chicago 1978, no.64, illus.
The Art Institute of Chicago, French Drawings and Sketchbooks of the Nineteenth Century, Chicago and London 1979, cat. by Harold Joachim and Sandra Haller Olsen, no.2G6
Michel Schulman, Edgar Degas 1834-1917. The first digital catalogue raisonné. Paintings and pastels, 2022, ref. MS-247
Edgar Degas was born within a stone’s throw of the Paris opera house and not far from its successor the Opéra Garnier, still a jewel of the city today. In the course of his career he made over a thousand drawings, paintings and sculptures of dancers. Degas was an abonné, a season ticket holder with access to the backstage and rehearsal rooms of the ballet. He portrayed dancers in performance and in ballet classes where the young members of the corps de ballet - petits rats as they were known – began their arduous careers. He painted famous ballerinas transformed by the green limelight of the stage and in their elegant street clothes.
Around 1882-85, when this pastel was made, Degas was less interested in panoramic, realistic views of dancers being drilled by their ballet master, such as The dance class, 1874 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and even less in depicting performances on stage that he had witnessed, for example the ballet of phantom nuns in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (1876; Victoria and Albert Museum, London). He was fascinated by the essence of the dancer, by the graceful contrapposto of limbs and bodies, which gain an almost abstract character. Degas still frequented and sketched at the Opéra Garnier, but in the ‘indescribable disorder’ of his studio, as noted by his friend Paul Lafond, he kept a few dusty tutus and screens which simulated the painted backdrops of the theatre. Here young members of the corps de ballet would pose for him; he also studied dancers from memory, from earlier drawings, from his wax models and (in the 1890s) from his own photographs. This mixture of methods freed his imagination beyond the slavish copying of perfectly executed movement demanded of the Opéra dancers.
In Préparation pour la classe, Degas explores the rhythmic possibilities of a group of three dancers, two leaning forward slightly, feet in third position, but in mirror image of each other. A third dancer, at the left, is present in ghostly, shadowed profile, her limbs almost as transparent as the tulle of her tutu. A fourth dancer, in the background on the right, leans against the embrasure of the large window, her silhouetted arm providing a vivid contrast with the light which pours through it. The long, deep windows recall those of the old Opéra studios on rue le Peletier. The radiance coming from outside both illuminates the dancers and emphasizes their enclosure and intense concentration as they search for the perfection that their profession demands.
Degas uses the expressive qualities of the pastel medium to evoke the light playing over the three figures, haloing the auburn hair of the central subject, picking up the high gloss of the satin ballet shoes and the decorative sashes. Heads turned to right, left, right, left, ripple across the paper like a series of notes.
Although he had used pastel from early in his career, in his later years Degas explored the medium most fully. While oil paint requires lengthy periods of drying time between the application of layers of pigment, pastel allows the laying of colour upon colour with spontaneity. Richard Kendall comments: ‘What charcoal is to Degas’s line and structure, so pastel is to his colour. With pastel, Degas could work directly and sensuously at the surface of his designs…smudging the cool tints of a dancer’s tutu against the warmth of her surroundings or encrusting stage scenery with the most fanciful patterns. Pastel invites flamboyance where charcoal imposes restraint…Degas seized on pastel as the ultimate medium of his maturity, uniting in a single material the expressiveness of paint with the spareness and precision of drawing’.
In this work Degas employs pastel with the sensitivity of a virtuoso playing Chopin, using precision in the delicate profiles of the dancers and the pleats of their tutus, while using broad, sensuous swathes of colour for their blue satin sashes. This breadth was achieved with Degas’s innovative technique of ‘pastel-soap’, in which he moistened the pastel with steam from a kettle, allowing some areas to be reworked with a brush. Throughout his career the painterliness of Delacroix and the exquisite line of Ingres battled for pre-eminence in his art, as austerity and sensuality did in his life. This pastel finds them in perfect balance.
Note on the provenance
In November 1919 this pastel was acquired by the businessman and philanthropist Martin A Ryerson (1856-1932), son of the lumber baron Martin L Ryerson and Mary Ann Campau. Martin Ryerson Snr owned the only remaining lumber yard in Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871. His son joined the family business in 1880 and by 1892 was Chicago’s richest citizen. He was President of the Board of Trustees and a major benefactor of the University of Chicago. Ryerson was a founding Trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago and amassed a spectacular collection which encompassed Classical and Asian art, European decorative arts and Old Masters. Alerted to Impressionism by Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Ryerson began avidly collecting in this field, acquiring more than a dozen works by Claude Monet. While visiting Monet at Giverny in 1920, he offered to buy the Water lily murals which were subsequently given by the artist to France.
Much of Martin A Ryerson’s collection was bequeathed to the Art Institute of Chicago after his death in 1932. Other works, including the Degas pastel Préparation pour la classe, were bequeathed to the museum on the death of his wife Carrie (1859-1937). The pastel was deaccessioned by the museum and sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1990.
1834 - Paris - 1917
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas was born in Paris on 19th July 1834, into a Franco-Italian family. His father Auguste, a banker, was French; his mother, Celestine, from New Orleans. Branches of the De Gas family in both Paris and Naples had changed their name from Degas to enhance their social status. Degas reverted to the original spelling around 1870.
Degas received a classical education at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, destined for a future as a lawyer. Instead he copied Italian Old Masters at the Louvre and in 1854 became a pupil of Louis Lamothe (1822-1869), a former student of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, as well as attending the Ecole des Beaux-Arts 1855-56. Academically trained and a superb draughtsman, Degas aimed to be a classical painter of modern life. He said: ‘My art has nothing spontaneous about it, it is all reflection’.
From 1856 to 1859 Degas was in Italy, spending time in Naples and Florence with his aunt, the Baroness Bellelli, whose family he painted (The Bellelli family, 1858-67; Musée d’Orsay, Paris). He travelled extensively in Italy, studying the Old Masters. Back in Paris, he exhibited history pictures. A visit to his cotton-broking relatives in New Orleans produced Cotton market at New Orleans, 1873 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau), a modern-life subject of a type that increasingly interested him. He also portrayed scenes at the ballet and the races, fascinated by ways in which to capture movement in a naturalistic manner.
Degas had met Edouard Manet while copying pictures at the Louvre in 1862 and through him was introduced to the group that would become known as the Impressionists. He exhibited at the first ‘Impressionist’ exhibition in 1874 and at six of their subsequent shows, although he always thought of himself as a Realist or Naturalist. He disliked painting en plein air, preferring to make multiple sketches and use a mixture of these and memory to work up compositions in the studio. Informal sketches allowed Degas to capture the ‘naïve spontaneity of behaviour’ which he sought.
Degas experimented with techniques in many media. He made clay sculptures on armatures of wire, both of dancers and horses, to develop his understanding of movement. He was hugely influenced by Eadweard Muybridge, whose photographs of racehorses finally unlocked the secret of how they move. Little fourteen-year-old dancer (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), a polychrome wax sculpture, with real tutu and ribbon, of one of the petit rats of the Opéra Ballet, shown at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881, caused outrage for its avant-garde technique and unvarnished depiction of the ‘low-life’ subject.
By the 1880s Degas was a well-established figure in the Parisian art world. Financial security allowed him to be selective about where he sold his work. After the final Impressionist Exhibition in 1886, he sold only through chosen dealers such as Durand-Ruel, Hector Brame and Ambroise Vollard. In this decade he developed pictures on the theme of women working – ironers, laundresses and milliners – or during intimate moments at home, such as bathing. Many of these works are executed in pastel. In the 1890s Degas moved away from Naturalism with compositions such as Combing the hair (La coiffure), c.1896 (National Gallery, London), which use a high, anti-naturalistic colour key and rhythmic, expressive line, a style akin to Symbolism. Degas was influenced by younger artists, such as Paul Gauguin at this period, but also had huge influence on artists of a younger generation, among them Pablo Picasso. Depressed by failing eyesight and an enforced move from his beloved (if chaotic) studio, Degas produced his last works in 1912. He died in Paris in 1917.
The work of Edgar Degas is represented in many collections including the Musée d’Orsay, Paris; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid; the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg and the National Gallery, London.
 See Detroit Institute of Arts/Philadelphia Museum of Art, Degas and the Dance, 2002, exh. cat. by Jill de Vonyar and Richard Kendall, p.232.
 Suzanne Folds McCullogh in Degas in the Art Institute of Chicago, op. cit., p.149.
 Kendall, op. cit., p.89.
 See Denis Rouart, Degas à la recherche de sa technique, Paris 1945, pp.22-25.