Edgar Degas (1834–1917) was the odd man out of the French Impressionists. In so many ways he ploughed his lonely furrow, so creating different art. His entry to painting followed a meeting with JAD Ingres, and he went on to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he would have had his first formal contact with pastel as a medium. From Paris he followed the tradition of travelling to Rome to study the masterpieces of the Renaissance, then on his return he started history painting, exhibiting annually at the Salon from 1865.
Degas travelled quite a bit in 1869, first to Brussels where he sold some of his paintings, then in the summer to the north coast of France, where he visited Manet and painted some landscapes in pastels, on the Normandy coast. Among those is Beach at Low Tide (c 1869-70), which emphasises the flatness and emptiness. These are a stark contrast to all his previous work, with their very vague forms – hardly work for such a keen draughtsman.
Several fine pastel landscapes survive from his summer on the coast, including Beach at Low Tide or Mouth of the River (1869).
Concerned that he was developing an eye disorder, Degas went indoors and turned to figurative painting. He also started to experiment with mixed media, including ink drawings and monotypes with added pastels.
The Rehearsal On Stage (c 1874) was painted in pastel over a brush-and-ink drawing, using a similar process to his monotypes with added pastel.
The scene is a rehearsal for a performance at the ballet, with various dancers seen on stage, and the dance master at the left coaching two who are centre stage (here, to the right of centre). Behind the dance master other dancers are waiting in the wings, one fastening her shoe. At the far right are two other men: one straddles a chair, and is wearing a top hat. The other leans back, his body almost straight on the chair, at an angle of about 45 degrees to the stage, seemingly asleep, his hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets.
His ballet paintings progressed to smaller groups, focussing more on their form and movement, as in Danseuse basculant (Danseuse verte) (Swaying Dancer, Dancer in Green) (1877-79). This is painted not in oils, but a combination of pastel and gouache.
Degas also used pastel studies when preparing a major work in oils. In 1879, he embarked on one of his major works, concerned entirely with one woman, the Cirque Fernando performer Miss La La (or Lala), who startled audiences by her aerial act, suspended only by her teeth. Even given free access to her rehearsals, this was a formidable challenge, and for once we have good insight into how he tackled this. He started with a series of drawings, looking at different views and compositional possibilities.
He then refined those into what I believe was his first pastel sketch of Miss Lala at the Fernando Circus (1879), now in the Getty. He has squared it up with a pencil to make the image easier to transfer to his next study.
This later version of Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando (1879), now in the Tate, makes small adjustments, such as bringing her right leg round more, as if her hips had been rotated, and adds some background.
Degas also painted some of his most important works in pastels, such as Waiting, from about 1882. This shows two women sat side-by-side on a wooden bench in a corridor or similar area within the ballet of the Paris Opera. The woman on the left is a ballet dancer, who is in full dancing dress. She leans forward and down, grasping her left ankle with her left hand, although she is not looking at that ankle but ahead at the flagstones on the floor.
Sat immediately to the right of the dancer is a woman wearing black street clothing, holding an unrolled black umbrella, and with black walking or working shoes. She wears a black hat and a full length black coat, her wrists are crossed on her lap, and she looks slightly down from directly ahead.
The dancer’s face is completely obscured; the other woman’s eyes are obscured by the brim of her hat. The two women occupy only the left half of the wooden bench, leaving the other half free. Degas provides no other clues as to what the two women are waiting for, nor whether there is any relationship between them.
Race Horses (c 1885–88) is an unusual pastel painting which Degas made directly onto wood, whose grain remains visible.
During this period, he also started his long and intense series of pastel paintings of women bathing and dressing.
Woman in a Bathtub, a pastel from about 1886, shows one of his recurrent motifs: his model stands in a shallow metal tub, bending forward (as did Degas’ dancers when attending to their shoes), apparently mopping the bath out with a sponge. This presents another challenge to Degas’ draughtsmanship, in forming the arms, torso, and curve of the back across her hips.
This later period of his work culminated in pastel paintings formed from vigorous vertical or diagonal strokes, such as Woman Sponging Her Back (c 1888-92). There is speculation as to linkage with a series of monotypes which he made of brothels, which were kept private and not exhibited during his lifetime, and a wealth of readings and interpretations of these extremely intimate images. However, seen in the context of his work as a whole, they pursue his enduring interest in form and movement.
In 1890, apparently out of the blue, Degas started to make landscape images again. Some of these were monotypes, others were painted in pastel, such as Steep Coast (c 1892). Some were clearly made from real landscapes which he saw during his travels at this time; others, like this, are at least flights of fancy inspired by real views, and may be complete fantasy. They were brought together in his first solo exhibition in November 1892, at Durand-Ruel’s gallery.
Unlike the other French Impressionists, and most of his contemporaries, pastels were central to Degas’ art. They were also experiments in mixing media that laid the foundations for the twentieth century.
Ann Dumas, Richard Kendall, Flemming Friborg & Line Clausen Pedersen (2006) Edgar Degas, the Last Landscapes, Merrell. ISBN 978 1 8589 4343 5.
Richard Kendall & Jill DeVonyar (2011) Degas and the Ballet, Picturing Movement, Royal Academy of Arts. ISBN 978 1 9057 1169 7.
Christopher Lloyd (2014) Edgar Degas, Drawings and Pastels, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 5000 9381 8.