Edgar Degas: A Study in the Movement of Women

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

We hope you enjoy this print from our collection.      

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917)
Loges d’Actrices (Actresses in their Dressing Room), 1879–80
Published by Ambroise Vollard (French, 1866–1939), printed c. 1939
Etching and aquatint on paper (fifth and final state, from a canceled plate)
6 3/4″ H x 8 3/4″ W
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Spence Perry, A4308,07.0302   
 
Celebrated painter, sculptor, and printmaker Edgar Degas became best known for his representations of racehorses, dancers, and bathing nudes. Throughout his career, he was fascinated by the movements and poses of women.

In Loges d’Actrices, Degas takes us backstage, voyeuristically peering into the intimate space of the actresses, who seem unaware that they are being observed. On the left, a lady is preparing her hair while her colleague can be seen dressing in the background. Contrasting light and dark areas, Degas carefully divided the space into two halves and provided a captivating, atmospheric view of two simultaneous activities.
 
The museum’s work, the fifth and final state (or form of a print), was made from a canceled etching plate. Notice the diagonal lines slashing through the composition. Publishers or artists cancel plates to limit the print run and increase the value of the prints that have been editioned. As you can see, for major artists such as Degas, a canceled plate does not necessarily deter the creation of additional images. In contrast to an impression from an uncanceled plate made during the artist’s lifetime (see below), the museum’s impression is darker and not as vivid. The earlier print exhibits much sharper, clearly delineated figural and decorative detail, most notably in the abstracted patterns on the curtains (which contain splotches of ink). Degas’s compositional choices lend the work an unfinished quality and reflect his increasingly experimental approach to reworking his plates. From 1876 through the early 1880s, Degas sought to combine traditional techniques to find black-and-white equivalents for the color and texture of his paintings. As the artist remarked later in life, “At last I shall be able to devote myself to black and white, which is my passion.”
 
An aspiring history painter in his early career, Degas later devoted himself to the depiction of modern life. Although labeled an Impressionist by critics, he rejected this designation and viewed himself instead as a Realist. Although his technique was greatly admired during his life, some of Degas’s work was viewed as controversial, for he portrayed teenage girls (most famously in his sculpture, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, c. 1880) in what some regarded as distasteful, erotically suggestive compositions that responded to issues of both class and race. 

Edgar Degas
Loges d’Actrices (Actresses in their Dressing Room), 1879–80
Etching and aquatint on paper (fifth and final state, from an uncanceled plate)
8 7/8 “H x 12 5/16 ” W  
Formerly Swann Auction Galleries, New York, NY, 2020