Race horses and jockeys, even more than dancers, occupied Degas throughout his long career as an artist. Paul-André Lemoisne catalogued some ninety-one works in this category, spanning the period from 1860 to 1900—a number that did not include Degas's equestrian waxes and bronzes—and they embrace a range of sizes and mediums. As with the Paris Opéra, the spectacle of the turf gave Degas the base material from which to forge images of modern life in an alloy that fused references to the art of the past with details observed from life and scrupulously documented. But more than any other of his subjects, this was a genre that fed upon itself and spawned countless variations and adjustments. From a repertory established very early, Degas proceeded to select individual jockeys and rearrange them, to repeat poses and refine them, until this hermetic world lost all connection with the reality of the race track. During the 1890s Degas jockeys would emerge liberated from Baudelaire’s “heroism of everyday life” to lead their horses calmly through undefined pastures, untroubled by this displacement and uneager either to reach their destination or to return home.
This diminutive composition of Race Horses, which falls toward the end of the first phase in this development, is immediately distinguished by its unusual support. It is pastel, and not oil, on panel: the wood here, possibly light mahogany, is the kind that might be used for cigar boxes. Although pastel on panel is not a unique combination, it is extremely rare in Degas oeuvre, and testifies to his continuing pleasure in experimenting with techniques and supports.
Using the amber, grainy surface of the wood to suggest a mackerel sky, as well as the hills in the background, Degas applied the pastel lightly, at times tentatively. He varied the degree of pressure on his crayon: at its most insistent, it achieves the bright sheen of the jockeys’ silks, but it is much more active in describing the closely hatched, wispy grass that occupies most of the foreground. Here, the point of the pastel moved rapidly, in vertical zigzags that occasionally scratched the wood. Some scratch marks are visible on the underbelly of the central horse; however, in painting the riders and horses, Degas’s penmanship changed again. He allowed the surface of the wood to stand as the dominant colour of the horses, building up their forms with strokes of orange red, grey, black and white, with traces of green spilling over from the surrounding grass.
There is also a lovely variety in the postures of the horses: the three jockeys in the foreground make up a closely linked unit, bound together not only in the interlocking of hooves, but also by the movement of the jockey in lime green, who turns around to catch the eye of his two companions, The serenity of this group contrasts with the rearing horse in the background, whose bridle is taut as his rider pulls him in—the single element of disorder in this otherwise quiet scene, The distant church tower with its attendant cluster of buildings and the pathways cutting across the hills, traced in white, create a sort of no-man's land, midway between the race track of Longchamp and the empty, barren hills of the late works.
Controlled and effortless, Race Horses brilliantly disguises its abundant antecedents. The composition and every figure within it can be traced back through a variety of studies and finished works—a characteristic of the inbred morphology unique to this subject. Bennozo Gozzoli’s fresco in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence is the starting point for the pastel; Degas made several copies after the fresco on Gustave Moreau's encouragement between 1859 and 1860. The central horse in profile assumes the pose of the steed in Degas’s copy of Gozzoli’s Journey of the Magi, a pose that Degas late studied from life in a sanguine drawing made in the mid-1860s and one that would be much used in his race-horse compositions. The horse and jockey with their backs to the spectator derive from another detail of the Gozzoli fresco, Degas’s copy of The Patriarch Joseph of Constantinople and His Attendants, a pose that Degas would also study from life several times in the following decade. The prototype for the rear-view horse and jockey in Race Horses is probably the central rider, squared for transfer, in his Three Studies of a Mounted Jockey, where the configuration of the horses’ limbs matches exactly.
Yet the figures in the pastel had already appeared in a variety of fully worked compositions made during the 1860s and 1870s. The godfather to the entire series, The Gentleman's Race: Before the Start (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), begun in 1862, reworked in c. 1882, included several figures that Degas would use again and again. There was still another stage in the process that led to the pastel Race Horses. The rider in profile and the jockey seen from behind were brought together in the Race Horses, an oil on panel, nearly the same size as the pastel, that was begun in 1871-72 and reworked in 1876-78, and in which the rearing horse in the background appeared for the first time. This was not only the testing ground for a more ambitious composition—The Racecourse, Amateur Jockeys (Musée Orsay, Paris), begun in 1876 and completed in 1887—it was also the original design for the composition of the Annenberg pastel.
Degas continued, almost obsessively, to rework and refine these individual elements. Although the bearded jockey in the centre had been used in many race-horse paintings, Degas studied the position of his right thigh and upright bearing in several sheets of a notebook used between 1881 and 1884, long after he painted Race Horses , in which this figure had again appeared. These notebook sketches, as well as the exquisite drawing of his friend Ludovic Lepicasa jockey, were used in the elaboration of the Annenberg Race Horses.
Race Horses formed part of the prestigious collection of Théodore Duret (1838-1927), the first great advocate and historian of the Impressionist movement. Of the eight works by Degas that appeared in the Duret sale of March 19, 1894, four works may be identified from the detailed descriptions in the sale catalogue. In addition to this pastel, Duret owned Degas’s Conversation at the Milliner’s (Nationalgalerie Berlin [East]), Ballet Rehearsal (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), and Before the Start (formerly with Paul Rosenberg, Paris). It is not clear how or when Duret acquired these works, which date from the second half of the 1880s, although he purchased one of his dancers from Durand-Ruel for 2,000 francs. His decision to sell this great collection at a time when Impressionist paintings were beginning to command respectable prices infuriated Degas. Duret’s high reserves were not always met, and Degas rejoiced in such disappointed expectations.