EDMOND de GONCOURT wrote in his diary on Feb. 13, 1874, about ``a strange painter named Degas'' whose studio he had visited the previous afternoon. ``After many attempts, experiments, and thrusts in every direction,'' he wrote, this artist ``has fallen in love with modern subjects and has set his heart on laundry girls and danseuses.''
Edgar Degas became so popularly associated with the subject of ballet dancers that it is hard now to imagine seeing his pictures of this subject for the first time. It also seems astonishing that he was almost 40 before he painted his first ballet subject - though out of the 2,000 surviving works by him, half depict the ballet.
Goncourt goes on to describe one of the paintings (``The Rehearsal,'' now in Glasgow's Burrell Collection) showing ``the legs of a danseuse descending a little staircase'' and ``a ridiculous ballet master serving as a rascally foil'' and, ``caught from reality,... the graceful twisting of the movements of those little monkey girls.''
Degas entertained the writer by actually mimicking `` - to use a danseuse's language - a choreographic d'eveloppe-ment or an arabesque; and it is really very amusing to see him, with his arms rounded, mix the aesthetic of a dance professor with that of a painter while talking about the delicate muddiness of Vel'azquez and the silhouetting talent of Mantegna.''
The American collector Louise Havermeyer later asked Degas why he painted so many danseuses. ``Because, madame,'' he answered, ``it is all that is left of the combined movements of the Greeks.'' Though Degas was often ironic, and particularly in his later years, caustic and moody, there is little doubt that his reply to Mrs. Havermeyer was quite serious. He had a profound respect for the classic Greek tradition. That he talked about Mantegna to Goncourt in relation to his dance pictures was hardly casual. This 15th-century Italian painter was one of the many old masters whose works Degas copied, the appeal in this case probably being not so much ``silhouette'' as the classicism of Mantegna's art - his tendency to draw and paint the figure as if it were antique marble statuary, and his organization of groups of figures into friezelike compositions.
The ``combined movements of the Greeks'' - one thinks of the pediments of Greek temples filled with a movement, almost a dance, of figures, of carved Lapiths and centaurs, of horsemen and mythical deities and reclining goddesses - seemed to Degas, no less than the artists of the Italian Renaissance, to be the very root and basic language of art.
At the same time he recognized the need for his art to be a response to life in his own time. Ballet was itself an 18th-and 19th-century distant cousin of the kinds of movement that inspired the figurative sculpture of the ancient world.
It has been pointed out that during Degas's lifetime, ballet underwent a particularly rough patch. He came too late to witness the airy artistry of the Taglioni period; and the revival of dance under Diaghilev was only starting as his career ended. It seems likely that he was well aware that his favorite subject matter had become a popular and not very original or refined art form. Probably this suited his sense of irony.
But for Degas it was enough, a splendid pretext for exploring his intense interest in the possibilities of the ``combined movements'' of the human figure without resorting to historical, and therefore academic, subject matter. His subject is really not ballet as such, and certainly he eschewed its sentimental and pretty aspects to a degree that offended some of his contemporaries, but not the dancers. They were usually from poor backgrounds. ``Little monkey girls'' seems an apt description, suggesting that neither they nor their demanding job was exactly beautiful or ideal, but that their training produced extraordinary acrobatic prowess and elasticity of movement.
How to depict movement in the stillness of painting and sculpture has certainly been a central issue in Western art since the ancient Greeks. Degas's contribution to the development of this idea included a fascination for asymmetrical composition; for open spaces into which figures seem about to move; for cutting off figures by the edges of the picture as though their presence was pure, momentary chance; and for unexpected angles of viewpoint that involve remarkably deft foreshortenings and offer a fresh sense of the figures' three-dimensionality: Such viewpoints also gave the viewer of the picture a new sense of his own mobility.
Degas was also apparently obsessed with the idea of overlap - of the way in which, without regard for clarity of composition, figures in real life often move artlessly in front of each other. There is perhaps an element of humor in such apparent arbitrariness. But in his late pastels of dancers, like the one shown here, Degas explored the close-knit relationships of figures crowding one another in this way, overlapping to the point of complicated concurrence, with complete seriousness. Jean Sutherland Boggs has described these dancers: ``In these compositions Degas tended to mass the dancers so that ... they seemed to share a single torso and to have as many complicating arms as Siva, the Indian god who was sometimes associated with the dance. Actually each arm can be logically explained, even in its gesture.''
It is as if Degas wanted to move the viewer right in among the dancers (who are not necessarily dancing or exercising but may be in the wings preparing to go on, stretching, resting, yawning, or seeing to their clothing).
``Four Dancers in Green,'' with its vigorous charcoal armature of drawing and a use of green pastel that quite summarily adds color, is surely a study rather than a finished work. It shows the working artist exploring his working motif, forming single dancers into a composition so interrelated that it is no longer possible to separate them. As they would be in the dance itself, all moving to the same music, so these four dancers are caught up in Degas's drawing strokes so that they become one rather than four. The danseuse nearest the viewer is twisting her arms to make an adjustment to her shoulder strap - a motif that appears over and over again in Degas's late drawings of dancers.
Art historian Richard Thomson discusses this in his book ``The Private Degas.'' He observes: ``The motif ... can be traced back to an Antique sculpture he admired and life drawings he made as a student.'' The antique sculpture is in the Louvre, a Roman copy after Praxiteles of ``Diane de Gabies'' - adjusting her dress at the shoulder.
At the same time a drawing like ``Four Dancers in Green'' shows how he was trying to resuscitate in the medium of drawing something of the strength, energy, and visual music he appreciated in the carved reliefs of many figures found on the pediments of Greek temples and on the sides of sarcophagi. These figures were not fully three-dimensional, but as in Degas's drawings, they were boldly accentuated by deep shadows and they were bound together by an irresistibly purposeful design.