When a painting is cleaned, previously hidden aspects of the composition often emerge. The recent restoration of “Dancers at the Bar,” a late figural scene created by French artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and now part of the Phillips Collection’s permanent collection, offers no such dramatic revelations. The cleaning has subtly changed the appearance of the artwork so it more faithfully reflects Degas’ intended effect — an oil painting resembling a pastel drawing in blurry, textured effects achieved with brushwork and bare hands.
Since late May, Elizabeth “Lilli” Steele, head of conservation at the Phillips, has been painstakingly restoring the large canvas. Her first step was to remove a layer of yellowed varnish applied to the face of the painting. This coating probably was applied as part of a restoration of “Dancers” just before or after it was purchased for $18,000 by Duncan Phillips in 1944. A jar full of dirty cotton swabs in the museum’s conservation laboratory testifies to the grime and gunk now gone from its surface.
“It probably wasn’t meant to be varnished,” Ms. Steele says on a recent visit to the lab. “Degas preferred a matte appearance. The varnish made it look more light-reflective, and you couldn’t see the subtleties of its composition and brushwork.”
Mr. Phillips, who had a keen eye for color, no doubt was drawn to the painting’s bold, complementary contrasts of blue-skirted dancers against a bright orange background. The two figures, their backs to the viewer, are shown almost as one. Their stretching poses appear as almost mirror images of each other; their skirts overlap to resemble a single fan of blue. Both balance on one leg with the other leg outstretched to the edge of the canvas. The resulting composition of diagonal limbs and big shapes of color is dynamic and almost abstract.
Degas is regarded as an impressionist, but he was more of a realist who mainly worked indoors rather than flecking paint in the open air. He completed “Dancers at the Bar” sometime between 1900 and 1905 after spending decades scrutinizing ballet dancers at the Paris Opera and recording their every movement. “It comes at the culmination of a career that is hugely invested in pastels,” says chief curator Eliza Rathbone. “[In this painting] you sense the knowledge he’s built up. Who understood the [female] back more profoundly than Degas?”
Though he had lost much of his sight by the 1880s, Degas kept drawing and redrawing his stretching and straining female figures, recycling their poses into various media. He worked back and forth between pastels and oil paint rather than strictly using his drawings as preparatory studies for later paintings. The restored “Dancer” reveals the closeness of the relationship between the two mediums and the artist’s unceasing quest to develop his art even while nearly blind.
In preparing to remove the varnish, Ms. Steele took a series of infrared photos, which revealed that Degas sketched alternatives for the position of the dancers’ legs before settling on his final version. “It’s typical of Degas to make a lot of changes in his paintings,” she says. “He did other versions of this composition in pastels roughly the same size. This painting may have been the source for those drawings.”
Ms. Steele also discovered that the painting, which measures slightly more than 4 feet high by 3 feet wide, was cut down from a larger canvas. Flaking off brown paper used to finish the sides of the resized canvas, the conservator found strips of the French newspaper used to line a new canvas backing for the smaller painting. She also discovered orange paint applied over the seam between the old and new canvases, indicating that Degas changed the background color from brownish purple to orange once his work was reduced in size. For an artist to continue painting on a resized canvas, she says, is “pretty unusual.”
Another intriguing feature became clearer during the restoration: a daub of white paint applied by the artist’s thumb or finger to the right dancer’s face. “We never could see that or the lines in the skirts so clearly before the varnish was removed,” Ms. Steele says.
Her next step is to repair the cracks in the painting’s surface — they are particularly noticeable in the dancers’ bo—dices — by applying droplets of glue with a tiny brush to the crevices. As she demonstrated in the lab, a suction disk placed under the canvas will help pull down the layers of paint so they stick to the canvas. The repaired surface will be coated with a very thin layer of matte varnish.
This process should be completed over the next month, Ms. Steele says, and the painting, one of six Degas paintings in the Phillips’ collection, will go back on public view in early October. “It’s exciting that we can now see it more as Degas would have wished us to see it,” Ms. Rathbone says.