Thoroughbreds, jockeys, and racecourses were of enormous interest to Degas at least in part because of the many ways in which they are analogous to ballet dancers, the dance, and the stage. Both activities focus on highly specialized training, gestures, and movements that are codifiable and repeated. In addition, the preparation in the moments before a performance or race involves an informal ritual that fascinated the artist and became the subject of many of his paintings.
In the 1860s and 1870s, Degas painted racing subjects occasionally, but in the 1880s his interest in horses, jockeys, and racecourses increased significantly. It is possible that he was responding to the pressure of dealers and collectors to paint such subjects for the art market. In addition, his dealer (Galerie Durand-Ruel) was in the midst of a period of enormous success; strong prices and quick payment may have encouraged Degas to produce a larger number of works devoted to equestrian subjects. As a result, in the early 1880s Degas began to produce "closely related variants of a given picture once he had found a successful compostion" (Gary Tinterow in Jean Sutherland Boggs et al., Degas (exhibition catalogue), Galerie Nationale du Grand Palais, Paris; National Gallery of Art, Ottawa; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1988-89, p. 402).
Avant la course exists in four versions, including the present oil (see figs. 1-3). As Tinterow notes, "The Clark Art Institute's finely painted oil on panel appears to have been the prototype for [the] other panels." Moreover, he observes that the present work "is composed somewhat differently. The figures are slightly smaller and the landscape deeper; the scene centered on the panel, therefore appears less immediate. Yet the handling is once again rich, fluid, and satisfying. The sheen of the horses' coats vies for attention with the shimmering shirts worn by the jockeys, the turf is rendered with great tactility, and the landscape is noted economically but convincingly" (Tinterow, ibid.). Preparatory drawings were made for the Whitney, Walters Art Gallery, and Hill-Stead Museum versions, but no compositional studies for the example in the Clark Art Institute are known.
The version in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute was sold in 1882 and very likely painted the same year. The example in the Walters Art Gallery appears on stylistic grounds to have been painted in the late 1880s. In 1888, Theo van Gogh acquired this picture for his gallery (a branch of Goupil - Boussod et Valadon), but it could have been painted as early as 1882. He sold it the next year to the distinguished publisher Paul Gallimard in whose collection it remained until the late 1920s. It was with Reid & Lefevre in 1927, and the following year M. Knoedler and Co., New York, sold it to Mr. Whitney. Of course the acquisition was a reflection of a deep and abiding interest in thoroughbreds and horse racing. Eventually his collection included oustanding equestrian subjects by Gericault, de Dreux, Degas, Manet and Munnings. In addition, the Whitney family's Greentree stable produced many of the greatest horses in American racing history.
Oil on paper laid down on cradled panel
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Exposition d'oeuvres de l'école Impressionniste, 1903, no. 14
11 7/8 by 19 in. 29.9 by 48.3 cm
Louis Vauxcelles, "Collection de M.P. Gallimard," Les Arts, Paris, September 1908, illustrated p. 26
Arsène Alexandre, "Exposition d'art moderne à l'Hotel de la Revue," Les Arts, Paris, August 1912, illustrated pl. IV
James B. Manson, The Life and Work of Edgar Degas, London, 1927, illustrated pl. 47
Camille Mauclair, Degas, New York, 1941, illustrated p. 90 (titled Race Track)
Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, vol. 2, Paris, 1946, no. 679, illustrated p. 381 (as dating from 1881-85)
Franco Russoli, L'opera completa di Degas, Milan, 1970, no. 697, illustrated p. 119 (titled Avant le départ)
John Rewald, "Theo Van Gogh, Goupil and the Impressionists," Gazette des Beaux Arts, Paris, February 1973, listed p. 89
William H. Johnston, The Nineteenth Century Paintings in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1982, discussed p. 134
John Rewald, Studies in Post-Impressionism, New York, 1986, listed p. 89
Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, illustrated p. 80
Goupil-Boussod et Valadon, Paris (acquired from the artist on June 8, 1888)
Paul Gallimard, Paris (acquired from the above on August 5, 1889)
Alex. Reid and Lefevre (The Lefevre Gallery), London (acquired from the above)
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York (acquired from the above on March 23, 1927)
John Hay Whitney (acquired from the above in August 28, 1928)
The Greentree Foundation, New York (bequeathed by the above and sold: Sotheby's, New York, May 5, 2004, lot 20)
Acquired at the above sale