“In pastels or pant, the artist excels in silhouettes of little dancers with sharp elbows,” commented Paul Mantz, not altogether approvingly, in April 1880. And, indeed, the standing dancer who adjusts her sash—her back half turned to the viewer, her angular elbows jutting out—is a ubiquitous figure in Degas’s repertory. She makes her first appearance in his ballet paintings of 1873 in the background of The Dance Class (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.) and her last, in 1898, in the right foreground of the Ballet Scene, having provided the subject for a range of pastels and drawings in the intervening years.
The pastel Dancer relates very closely to The Dance Lesson of 1878-79, the first in a series of paintings depicting dance rehearsals that employ a distinctive horizontal format. The pastel is almost identical to the central figure in the painting, a standing dancer in contre-jour, tying her sash. The slight differences between the two dancers are significant, however. Whereas in the painting the girls pointed nose and rather heavy jowls give her character, in the pastel her profile is much less sharply defined. Here it is at an even greater remove from the incisive chalk and pastel drawing of a head that is one of a number of preparatory studies for the pose and for which Nelly Franklin, an English dancer, modelled. A similar attenuation is found in the act of adjusting her sash. In the painting the girl practically grapples with the bow, the ribbon firmly between her hands, while in the pastel her hands have moved behind the bow, adjusting something we cannot see.
It seems likely, therefore, that The Dancer was made after The Dance Lesson, and that both painting and pastel rely for the standing figure on a third, independent prototype. As early as 1873, Degas had made a spirited gouache drawing of a Standing Dancer Fastening Her Sash, which he seems not to have included in either of the great paintings of dance classes to which this drawing and others like it relate. It has been suggested that a charcoal drawing of a Standing Dancer Fastening Her Sash, which is squared for transfer to another composition, and which was first published as a study for the standing figure in The Dance Lesson and its later variants, might well have been the starting point for both the painting and the pastel. There are also arguments for its closer relationship with two later paintings: in the charcoal drawing the dancer wears a shawl over which her hair hangs loose—features connecting it with Dancers in the Rehearsal Room with a Double Bass (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), painted at least three and possibly six years after The Dance Lesson; the shawl also appears (with the chignon of the earlier works) in an even later variant, Dancers at the Foyer (The Contrabass) (The Detroit Institute of Arts). However, the effects of light on the dancer’s arms and elbows in the squared charcoal drawing relate more closely to The Dance Lesson and The Dancer than to either of the later variants, in which the upper half of the standing figure is shown in deep shadow. What, then, is the status of the pastel Dancer, and how should it be dated? The delicate vertical grids that encase the dancer, at left by the toe of her slipper and at right by her elbow through the tarlatan of her tutu, are plumb lines that Degas often used to establish the position of the main figure, and do not indicate that the drawing was made for transfer. Conceived as a single-figure study, the addition in the background of three diminutive dancers with broad features transformed the setting of the composition into a rehearsal room of considerable size. This perspectival device appears for the first time in Degas’s work of the late 1870s and is most brilliantly employed in The Dancing Lesson of 1880, to which this pastel should be compared.
A dating of around 1880 is also supported by an examination of Degas’s handling in The Dancer. The neutral, grey paper is lightly covered by flesh-pink pastel, which establishes a somewhat muted tonality. Colour is then applied in delicate hatching, concentrated hue appearing only on the trailing black neck ribbon; the knot of the blue sash, slightly off centre; and the little blue bow on the figures left shoulder, which gleams against the white strap. The sparseness of this pastel—both in its handling and in its construction of space—recalls, from a considerably lower register, the magnificent Dancer Resting (private collection) and Dancer with a Fan, which date from about 1879 and 1880, respectively.
Degas’ preference for the rehearsal room allowed him to show his young dancers engaged in almost every activity except dancing. They exercise and rest; adjust their costumes and rub their tired limbs; scratch their backs and sit with their mothers. Underlying these informal and often witty depictions are a nobility and a sympathy that should not be underestimated. Not only are the particulars of the rehearsal room edited out in the pastel, but Degas’ apparently straightforward observation of the young dancer adjusting her sash is itself partial and fabricated. For one major element in the dancer's dress is rigorously suppressed in this study, as in countless others like it; there is no indication of the dancer's knee-length calico bloomers, yet they were standard and considered “de rigueur in ballet circles until the turn of the century.” Only occasionally, in Dancers Practicing at the Barre, 1876—77 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and The Ballet Class, 1881, for example, does Degas choose to show this undergarment, and then with a fastidiousness and discretion that suggest bashfulness. Far more frequently he simply chooses not to see the ubiquitous bloomers.
“It is all well and good to copy what one sees,” Degas confided to George Jeanniot, in a passage that has become famous, “but it is much better to draw only what remains in one’s memory, This is a transformation in which imagination and memory collaborate.” This often-quoted passage has unexpected significance here. Degas was not the only painter of the ballet during the Third Republic: the suites of etchings and lithographs produced in the 1890s by Paul Renouard (1845-1924) unhesitatingly plagiarized and trivialized Degas compositions. Whenever Renouard depicted the dance class in session, his insinuating, coquettish dancers display their undergarments unashamedly. Prurient and vulgar, these lithographs nonetheless have a documentary fidelity that Degas disdained.