Maurice Denis, who had regularly visited Degas since 1901, here presents us an informal scene in the master's life. Degas is portrayed with his thick beard, wearing a cap and huge cape, with a look of intense concentration on his face. On his left is a young model, whose profile is vividly captured, her face disappearing under a veil. The scene is organised around one of Degas' famous notebooks in which the artist used to jot down his impressions of colour, and make quick, rough sketches. In the background, Degas' drawings are laid out with their tones of grey, beige, brown, crimson and green. Although half hidden by the protagonists, one can still make out a female nude and a dancer in a tutu.
Traditionally, this portrait is dated 1904, through a reference by P.A. Lemoine, Degas' first biographer: "It was around 1904, after a visit to the old master, that Maurice Denis painted this canvas from memory" (Degas et son oeuvre, vol. 1). However, Maurice Denis portrays Degas dressed in the same way, in a painting from 1906 (Troyes, Musée d'Art Moderne). Moreover, two preparatory drawings exist of the portraits in the Musée d'Orsay and the museum in Troyes, which appear to be contemporary in their vigorous drawing style, and thus give credence to the date of 1906.
Although there are many representations of Degas, in paintings and in sculptures, none presents the artist in such a lively and evocative way. It was this painting, incidentally, that Ambrose Vollard chose when, in 1917, he commissioned Maurice Denis to produce an etching for an album on Degas who had just passed away.