This work is one of several studies Edgar Degas made when working toward the finished painting—a scene inspired by the ballet La Source, a woodland fantasy set in a mythical Middle East. These were the first works in which the artist took up the motif of dancers and theatrical performance. Here, he portrays Eugénie Fiocre (French, 1845–1908), a renowned dancer who rose from humble origins to become the principal ballerina in the Paris Opéra, as Nourreda, the ballet’s lead role, in an extravagant production he saw in Paris in 1866. Rather than depict Fiocre at the height of a performance, Degas instead chose to capture her in a more private moment of contemplation during a rehearsal, seated alongside another figure in a nonspecific landscape. The artist executed the scene’s dark washes and watery reflections in a fluid, open brushwork that lends itself to the overall somber tone of the composition.
Label from Humble and Human: An Exhibition in Honor of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., February 2–May 26, 2019