Edgar Degas

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Edgar Degas
Mademoiselle Bécat at the Café des Ambassadeurs
Pastel over lithograph on paper mounted on paperboard.
13 7/8 x 10 7/8 inches (350 x 275 mm)
Thaw Collection.

During the 1880s Degas increasingly turned his attention to the female figure, focusing on the gestures and attitudes of ballet dancers, singers at café-concerts, and women bathing. Beginning in the late 1870s, he had frequented the café-concerts, which were criticized as vulgar by some, including the artist's brother René, who wrote to his wife, “After dinner I went with Edgar to the Champs-Elysées, from there, to the café-concert to hear the songs of idiots, such as the song of the compagnon maçon and other absurd follies” (Shapiro 1980, p. 153). The Café des Ambassadeurs was essentially an outdoor pavilion set against the trees of the Champs-Elysées, with tables placed in an arc behind the orchestra in front of the high proscenium stage.
Degas began the present drawing in 1885 using an impression of his 1877/78 lithograph of a concert at the Café des Ambassadeurs, which he extended along the bottom and right edges, and drew over in dense strokes of pastel. Significantly altering the composition of the print, he added the three female spectators in the foreground. One woman turns to comment to her companion, who scrutinizes the performance through her opera glasses. The women's dark silhouettes, in shades of blue and ochre, are contrasted against the bright pink dress of Emélie Bécat. The view toward the stage over their shoulders imparts a greater sense of depth and space. Degas expertly used the range of pastels to capture the effects of various light sources in this nocturnal scene. The singer is depicted onstage in the glow of unseen footlights, the sparkling chandelier, and the soft globe of the gaslight, with moonlight infusing the background and fireworks streaking the night sky. The contrast between the dreary and spectral captures the magic of the particular universe of the café -concert.
Bécat was a celebrated performer from her debut at the Café des Ambassadeurs in 1875 until about 1885. Her association with the Ambassadeurs was relatively brief; the majority of her performances were at the twin café belonging to the same owner, the Alcazar d'Eté. Bécat was known for her frenzied physical performance in the so-called style épileptique. Her comic poses, in this case with arms raised and fingers splayed, were her trademark. Degas depicted her in three additional lithographs and a number of prints reworked with pastel, and she--as well as other café-concert performers--appear among the pages of his 1880-82 sketchbook, also in the Morgan Library (Thaw Collection, 2004.25). By the time he produced the present sheet, Degas had begun to distill his views of the café-concert into a compact study of the singer emerging from the audience, suggesting her powerful presence among the spectators. Here she has become a cipher for the spirit of the café-concert that so enchanted the artist.


Watermark: none.
Signed and dated in pastel at lower right, "Degas / 85".

Purchased from the artist by the dealer Clauzet, Paris; acquired in 1891 by Walther Sickert (1860-1942) and his wife, Ellen Cobden Sickert (b. ca. 1848), London (by 1891); Mrs. Sickert's sister, Mrs. T. Fisher Unwin (1851-1947; by 1898); her sister, Mrs. Cobden-Sanderson (by 1908); Michel Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York; Mrs. Ralph King (née Fanny Tewskbury, 1868/69-1949), Cleveland (by 1947); Mr. and Mrs. Robert K. Shafer, Mentor, Ohio, until 1982; David Tunick, Inc., New York; from whom acquired by Eugene V. (1927-2018) and Clare E. (1924-2017) Thaw, New York and Santa Fe.
Associated names: 

Sickert, Walter, 1860-1942, former owner.
Sickert, Walter, Mrs., former owner.
Unwin, Fisher, Mrs., former owner.
Sickert, Cobden, Mrs., former owner.
King, Ralph, Mrs., former owner.
Schafer, Robert K., former owner.
Schafer, Robert K., Mrs., former owner.
Thaw, Eugene Victor, former owner.
Thaw, Clare, former owner.


The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, NY, "Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection", 2017. Exh. cat., no. 83, repr.
Denison, Cara D. et al. Drawings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Victor Thaw. Part II. New York : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1985, no. 46, repr. (also in Thaw III, no. 78)
Denison, Cara D. The Thaw Collection : Master Drawings and New Acquisitions. New York : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1994, no. 78, repr.
Shapiro, Michael: Degas and the Siamese Twins of the Café-Concert: The Ambassadeurs and the Alcazar d'été. Gazette des Beaux-Arts 95, April 1980, pp. 153-64.
Brame, Philippe and Reff, Theodore: Degas et son œuvre: A Supplement. New York, 1984, cat. no. 121.
Denison, Cara D. et al. From Mantegna to Picasso : Drawings from the Thaw Collection at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. London : Royal Academy of Arts ; New York : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1996, no. 73, repr. in color.
Degas and America: The Early Collectors. Atlanta and Minneapolis: High Museum of Art and Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2000, cat. no. 56.
From Leonardo to Pollock: Master drawings from the Morgan Library. New York: Morgan Library, 2006, cat. no. 90, p. 188-189.

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