Edgar Degas portrayed dancers throughout his career, most often as types rather than as individuals. In this glowing pastel, however, he described his model’s features and gesture precisely, allowing us to identify her as Rosita Mauri, a popular young ballerina who made her debut at the Paris Opéra in 1878. The receding lines of the floorboards, the curve of the stage at the upper left, and the halo of tutus along the right all focus attention on Mauri, who stands in third position and looks up toward the balconies. Degas handled the delicate medium of pastel with evident confidence. Laying it on the paper in long, sweeping strokes, he established the planks of the stage, modeled the exquisite forms of the dancer’s neck and collarbone, and clothed her in an embroidered satin bodice with matching shoes. Modifying his application, Degas created the floating, lavender-blue tutus of the corps de ballet, so indistinct in form—particularly in comparison with the detail of the principal figure’s gauzy skirt—that he had to anchor them with seemingly random pink legs, raised arms, and tilted heads. The contrast between the solidity of the star and the ephemerality of the dancers behind her points to a shift in Degas’s interests. He had begun to move away from the informal lightness of his early Impressionist works of the 1870s and toward the classicism that characterizes much of his subsequent production. It is surely no coincidence that at about this time he made his first sculptures, many of which depict dancers.
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