In Degas "Spartan Girls provoking Spartan Boys" we can find many of the elements of the mature Degas. Drama, movement, youthful physique are all present in many of his mature works.
This particular painting is also perhaps significant in that while it was obviously "historical" and painted for submission to the Paris Salon its subject is of an "everyday" nature. The fashion of the time was for historical/mythological subjects treated as high drama, or idealised recreations of an ancient golden age. Here Degas imagines and "recreates" ancient Sparta but the subject has an immediacy and "realism" that makes one think that Degas was already influenced by the ideas that would shape Impressionism.
The painting is perhaps also significant for the way in which Degas approaches the subject. Unlike Monet and others, who tried as far as possible to work directly from nature (hence the importance of landscape as a subject ), Degas worked from studies carefully worked up until he was ready to produce a finished painting. One of his compositional methods for producing a sense of immediacy in a painting was to overlap or pose figures making spontaneous gestures . As in "real life" there is a sense that figures are in a more random relationship to one another. (compare a Degas ballet scene to say Louis-David's "Oath of the Horatii").
|Loius-David-"Oath of the Horatii"|
In fact it is rare to see a complete figure in a work by Degas. Take practically any ballet scene, figures overlap each other, are posed in such a way that a part of the figure is not shown or are cut off by the painting edge. This is exactly the compositional device used in "Spartan Girls Provoking Saprtan Boys". The only figure in the work not overlapped is the bearded older man in the middle ground. This compositional device is used throughout Degas mature works. "Saprtan Girls Provoking Spartan Boys" is perhaps is a seminal work by Degas that prefigured many of the themes, approaches and techniques he would use throughout his life.
Although linked with the Impressionists Degas was never comfortable with the label and by analysing his background and painterly preferences we can perhaps see why. Degas particular individuality, his middle class background, draughtsmanship, study in Italy, and lack of success in the Paris Salon all play their part in his approach to his art. It could perhaps be said that Degas evolution as a painter is a product of his acceptance or rejection of the aesthetic currents of his time.
From the dominant aesthetic of time, the carefully composed dramas from mythological/historical literary sources, he retains a sense of drama and respect for careful composition while rejecting its literary basis. From the Impressionist aesthetic he retains the the subject drawn from life while rejecting its spontaneity and more prosaic elements. (Here perhaps we could contrast Degas with Cezanne. Cezanne accepted the Impressionist aesthetic but ulitmately rejects its methods, with the result that today Cezanne is more highly regarded as an artist than Degas.)
When Degas does paint an outdoor scene the subject is a "gentlemans" subject, the racetrack. Landscape is a backdrop for the drama and movement of horses and jockeys. It is this unwillingness to lose a sense of drama in painting that leads him to the footlights of the stage, circus performers, cafes, ballet classes, in short all the subjects he favours.