May 18, 2015

J. Paul Getty Museum Presents Degas: “Russian Dancers” and the Art of Pastel

Extraordinary loan from a private collection forms the centerpiece of an installation exploring Degas’s use of pastel

May 19–October 11, 2015
at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center
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Valerie Tate
Getty Communications
(310) 440-6861

Russian Dancers, 1899. Edgar Degas (French, 1834 - 1917). Pastel and brush. 22 7/16 x 29 1/2 in. Private Collection

LOS ANGELES - In 1899, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) began a group of drawings and pastels depicting folk dancers which included one of his greatest late works, Russian Dancers. This magnificent work, on loan to the Getty Museum from a private collection, is the centerpiece of a focused installation of late 19th-century French pastels titled Degas: “Russian Dancers” and the Art of Pastel, which opens on May 19 and continues through October 11, 2015.

Russian Dancers is from a monumental series of drawings and pastels that Degas made late in his career when he was fascinated by troupes of Ukrainian folk dancers that performed in Parisian cafes in the late nineteenth century. These works depict a style of dance far removed from the world of ballet for which Degas is so rightly famous. In contrast to his ethereal ballerinas, these peasant dancers, clad in elaborate, brightly colored folk costumes, danced with earthy, rambunctious abandon, stomping on the ground and flinging their arms above their heads.

“In his Russian dancers, Degas’s expressive virtuoso handling of the pastel achieves a harmony of color and texture that captures perfectly the dynamism and vitality of their movements,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “He made more than a dozen images of the subject, ranging from charcoal sketches on tracing paper to highly worked pastels, that represent one of the last great achievements of Degas’s career. It is thrilling to have this magnificent loan at the Getty and to be able to showcase it alongside other works from the Getty’s superb collection of pastels.”

During the 1880s, Degas increasingly turned away from oil paint in favor of the brilliant, powdery medium of pastel. Rolled into sticks, often by hand, artists could apply pastel color directly to paper, as in a drawing. The ease of execution and immediacy of the medium, which could be removed without consequence to the work in progress, suited Degas’s constant reworking of compositions and poses.

Degas had used pastel his entire career, but in late works like Russian Dancers he developed a unique way of working the medium, which involved applying numerous layers of various pure colors on top of one another, with each layer stabilized by fixative. Tracing paper also played an important role in this process, allowing for a range of compositional elements to be replicated, arranged, and rearranged across a series of works.

Pastel fused line and color into a single act, and in Degas’s hands it created self-described “orgies of color” in which the skirts of the peasant women come alive with top layers of brilliant orange that give way to the underlying purple, yellow, green, and white. His most daring works are the late ones—made between 1890 and 1910—in which he pushed the medium furthest to achieve extraordinarily novel textures, effects, and hues.

The Getty’s installation Degas: “Russian Dancers” and the Art of Pastel places this special loan in context through works in colored pastel and chalk mostly from the Museum’s permanent collection, that depict the ballet and Paris’s flashy popular entertainments. Pierre Bonnard’s Le Moulin Rouge of 1889 shows a cancan dancer shaking her frothy skirt in front of the swirling blades of the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub. A striking earlier Degas pastel, Miss Lala at the Fernando Circus (1879), depicts a circus performer, her figure set off by bold diagonal strokes of cobalt to evoke the way she famously spun as she performed her signature feat of being raised to the circus rafters by a bit of rope clenched between her teeth.

One of Degas’s most beautiful pastels of the ballet world, Waiting (about 1882; owned jointly with the Norton Simon Art Foundation in Pasadena), shows a flattened perspective view of a seated ballerina leaning forward in a splayed tutu. She is depicted in stark contrast to the plain, dark street clothes of a woman seated beside her holding an umbrella.

The special installation also includes other works by Degas as well as Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, along with an antique box of handmade pastels by Roché, the same brand used by Degas.

Lee Hendrix, senior curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, who organized the installation, remarks, “We are thrilled to share this strikingly beautiful late Degas pastel with our visitors, and to have the rare opportunity to put such a magnificent work on public view. It shows the artist’s startling powers of invention during his late career, when he brought the art of pastel to one of the supreme expressive moments in the history of the medium.”

Degas: “Russian Dancers” and the Art of Pastel will be on view May 19–October 11, 2015 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center. The installation is curated by Lee Hendrix, head of the Museum’s Department of Drawings, and Laurel Garber, graduate intern in Drawings.

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The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that includes the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Foundation. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

The J. Paul Getty Museum collects in seven distinct areas, including Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture and decorative arts, and photographs gathered internationally. The Museum’s mission is to make the collection meaningful and attractive to a broad audience by presenting and interpreting the works of art through educational programs, special exhibitions, publications, conservation, and research.

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