Degas was greatly inspired by the world of dance, theatre and the café-concert and was interested in artists both offstage and on. This painting belongs to a group of works by Degas that focus mainly on the audience in its various assemblies in boxes, balconies and stalls. The woman shown in the foreground of this painting resembles Ellen Andrée, the model whom Degas was particularly fond of during this period.
While most Impressionists were interested in the effects of daylight, Degas was more drawn to electric light and the enclosed space of auditorium interiors. This work, executed sometime during the late 1870s, makes use of subtle colours and recalls the pastels over monotypes that Degas was exploring during the same period: the sombre scene is skillfully revealed by the bright splashes of light and by the model’s accessories, her purse and the handkerchief she is holding. The motif of white lace (contrasting with the black of the costume) guides the gaze toward the face of the woman, absorbed by a spectacle that lies outside the frame. Her hat, in stunning turquoise against a crimson background, serves as a sort of shorthand reference to the world of milliners and ballerinas’ tutus that Degas liked so much.
This intimate work, comparable to a psychological portrait, is further distinguished by an impressive provenance: the Parisian art dealer Jacques Seligmann, whose collection included 71 works by Degas, purchased it at the artist’s first studio sale in May, 1918. In New York in 1921, the canvas came into the possession of the dealer Paul Reinhardt, who resold it to the Durand-Ruel Gallery in 1930. In 1943, the work became part of the illustrious collection put together by the writer Erich Maria Remarque and his wife, the actrice Paulette Goddard.