The Artist’s Methods: Degas’s "Waiting"

A simple image: two women seated on a bench in a bare room. This is Degas’s "Waiting."

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

Waiting (L'Attente) (about 1882) by Edgar DegasThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The two women, a dancer in a tutu and another woman in black, share a bench and engage themselves in body language familiar to many of us. The sharp angle and high viewpoint adds to the intimacy of the scene yet obscures the physical space that they occupy.

Like much of Degas’s work from the 1880s, Waiting includes the depiction of a dancer. Unlike his other dancers who are captured  in motion, this one is seated.

She slumps over and inspects her left ankle with her hand while her right arm lazily rests on her knee.

Engaged in her own thoughts, we see her off-stage in a relatively private space. By depicting a dancer in this way, Degas deconstructs the guise of the effortless grace and beauty of ballerinas and replaces it with the reality of toil and fatigue.

Unlike the dancer, the figure beside her does not appear 
in Degas’s work as often. Mirroring her companion, she is also bent forward . . .

. . . while loosely holding her umbrella between her fingers, allowing the tip to rest on the ground.

The two women are in close proximity yet seemingly not in contact with one another. They are engaged in their own thoughts and minor actions.  

While the exact date Degas made Waiting is still unknown, he most likely made this work around 1882 at a time when he was making and selling work quite successfully. Even the origin of its title is unknown!

Degas used several different methods to create various visual effects. He used colors that appear unusual up close but make sense to the eye at a distance.

Such as this streak of bright bluish-purple on the outside of the dancer’s calf . . .

. . .  the deep red used to contour
her hairline here . . .

. . . the smudge of bright blue in the woman’s hat and the pinch of yellow on her chin.

Besides his unusual and compelling use of color, Degas was selective in how he applied the pastel to the page. Some areas are heavily filled with color like the black dress of the woman . . .

. . . and the multiple shades of blue, green, purple, and white have been worked together on the dancer’s tutu.

Other areas, like the dancer’s skirt and the space behind the bow, are not as heavily worked and even reveal the bare paper underneath. This is likely because Degas would have used the color of the paper to add more depth and vibrancy to the dancer’s tutu and contrast with the blue bow. The original color of the paper was a pinkish color, which has now faded to tan.  

Using the paper’s color as a middle tone to add depth and contrast to the artwork is clearly seen again in the thinly worked floorboards near the dancer’s feet.

Degas did not apply the pastel in the same way throughout Waiting. Instead, he used a variety of techniques to capture the texture of the clothing the women wear. Here, he blended the pastel into the paper with a rag, or his fingers to create the soft appearance of the dancer’s tutu.

Degas wetted blue and green pastels with water and applied them with a brush to create the creamy texture 
of the dancer’s choker . . .

 . . . and the blue green bow around her waist.

. . . the brown and ochre strands of her hair . . .

He also dipped the sharpened tips of pastels into water and drew directly on the page to depict the ruffled trim on the bodice of the tutu . . .

. . . and the blue strokes in the folds of
the umbrella.

Finally, Degas created striking details by drawing with dry pastel, as we see on the black lace trim on the woman’s wrists . . .

 . . . and the network of fine parallel lines, or hatching, to create a shadow on her cheek.

In all its visual and artistic complexity, Waiting is an image of striking emotional resonance. No doubt we ourselves have adopted similar positions, experiencing the fundamental human sensation of waiting that Degas encapsulated.

Credits: Story

© 2020 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

Edgar Degas's Waiting is owned jointly with the Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena.

For more on Edgar Degas’s Waiting, see the following resources:
Edgar Degas: Waiting book in the Getty Store
Memories of Degas podcast on the Getty News & Stories

To cite these texts, please use: "The Artist’s Methods: Degas’s Waiting" published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.  

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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