Dancers Backstage depicts an informal, behind-the-scenes moment at the ballet—the type of scene that most intrigued Degas. Four figures occupy the painting: a dancer who stands onstage with her back to the viewer and a group of three figures—two dancers and a man in black evening clothes—who stand just offstage behind a painted stage flat.
The interaction between the man and the dancer to his left is the fulcrum of the composition. The man’s attire marks him as an abonné, one of the wealthy male subscribers to the Paris Opéra. Accorded the privilege of backstage access, the abonnés often lurked in the wings while productions were under way and flirted with the young dancers. There can be no mistaking the man’s intentions toward the woman beside him. In response, the dancer has turned away, her stance—head tilted down and arms folded—suggesting indifference.
Given its modest scale and rapidly painted surface, Dancers Backstage may have been intended as a sketch for a larger work. No such work was ever executed, however, and it is equally possible that Degas considered this jewel-like painting fully realized. He showed it to great acclaim in 1881 at the sixth impressionist exhibition.
upper right: Degas
Théodore Duret [1838-1927], Paris; (his sale, Galerie George Petit, Paris, 19 March 1894, no. 12); purchased by (Durand-Ruel, Paris); transferred 27 February 1895 to to (Durand-Ruel, New York); sold 31 December 1928 to (Alex Reid & Lefèvre, Glasgow and London); possibly sold 1929 to D.W.T. Cargill [1872-1939].  (Carroll Carstairs Gallery, New York); sold 3 June 1948 to Ailsa Mellon Bruce [1901-1969], New York; bequest 1970 to NGA.
- Possibly Le 6me Exposition de Peinture [Sixth Impressionist Exhibition], Paris, 1881, as Vue de coulisses, not in catalogue.
- A Loan Exhibition of Degas for the Benefit of the New York Infirmary, Wildenstein, New York, 1949, no. 78, repro., as On the Stage
- French Paintings of the Nineteenth Century from the Collection of Mrs. Mellon Bruce, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1961, no. 18, repro
- French Paintings from the Collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon and Mrs. Mellon Bruce, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, no. 61, repro
- Degas: The Dancers, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1984-1985, no. 5, repro.
- The Private Degas, Arts Council of Great Britain, The Whitworth Gallery, University of Manchester; The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 1987, no. 41, repro.
- Degas: o universo de um artista [Degas: The Universe of an Artist], Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, 2006, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- The Dancer: Degas, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec, Portland (Oregon) Art Museum, 2008, unnumbered catalogue, pls. 47, 55, and 152.
- De la Scène au tableau, Musée Cantini, Marseille; Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Rovereto; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 2009-2010, no. 164, repro.
- Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The National Art Center, Tokyo; Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, 2011, no. 16, repro.
- Lemoisne, Paul André. Degas et son oeuvre. 4 vols. Paris: Arts et metiers graphiques, 1946-1949: III: 596, no. 1024, repro.
- Minervino, Fiorella. L'Opera Completa di Degas. Milan, 1970: no. 859, repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 100, repro.
- Small French Paintings from the Bequest of Ailsa Mellon Bruce. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1978: 24, repro. (continuing exhibition beginning in 1978).
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 478, no. 708, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 121, repro.