A group of jockeys, formally dressed for the occasion, prepare for a cross-country race through an imposing landscape of hills lit by the setting sun. This picture is very much in the tradition of the outdoor horserace scenes painted in England in the late eighteenth century, and subsequently emulated by painters such as Delacroix and Bonington. Degas himself produced a similar outdoor scene in 1884; in this pastel, however, he moves away from a literal rendering, giving free rein to his skills as a colourist. This shift may reflect the influence of Paul Gauguin—whose painting The Moon and the Earth Degas had bought in 1893—and of his own experience in producing colour monotypes.
This masterpiece in pastel is surely one of those. Its evident signature and date have already been remarked on, and they indicate an unusual level of finish. This was surely intentional, as Degas was actively building his collection in the mid 1890s and was, hence, always in need of money to buy works of art by artists from El Greco to Gauguin. This pastel was purchased immediately from the artist by his dealer Durand-Ruel and sold quickly to the great American collector of Degas, Louisine Havemeyer, who had formed one of the great Degas collections in history. With its outdoor setting and its horserace subject, this beautiful pastel would fit wonderfully into the study or smoking room of a wealthy gentleman collector such as Horace Havemeyer. This is most likely precisely where it went.
Jean Sutherland Boogs wrote sensitively about this work in the monumental Degas catalogue produced by the Reunion des Musees Nationaux, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Metropolitan Museum in 1988-1989. She noted that it was made in Degas' sixtieth year and also that it derived from another signed and dated pastel produced precisely ten years earlier, when the artist was fifty. Hence it has an elegiac quality, of being more a memory than an observed scene, and Boggs pointed to the fact that its landscape setting derived a good deal of its subtlety and mystery from the large group of landscape colour monotypes that Degas had exhibited at Durand-Ruel galleries the previous year. Where, we are forced to ask, are these horses racing? Who are their spectators? Why are they so elaborately and formally dressed if they are alone? When we ask these questions, we realise how far we have come from the tradition of the outdoor horserace picture invented in England in the late 18th century and brought to France by Delacroix and Bonington in the 1820s. In these paintings, we see actual races with actual spectators set into landscapes that have little positive character of their own. Here, as Degas broods at the onset of his sixties, he sets these horses in a vast and empty mountainous landscape tinged pink by the rising or setting sun. There is a dark forested valley below them. Will some of them ride into it and disappear?
It is also interesting to note the brilliant hues that Degas used as if they are spices in an exotic visual stew. Although he had already become a brilliant colourist, he had only recently learned dramatic and new chromatic lessons from the Tahitian paintings of Paul Gauguin, at least one of which, The Moon and the Earth (New York, Museum of Modern Art), he had bought in November of 1893. How brilliant he was as collector to buy Gauguin just as he bought El Greco, Ingres, and Delacroix.
Richard R. Brettell