At the sixth impressionist exhibition in the spring of 1881, Edgar Degas presented the only sculpture that he would ever exhibit in public. The Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, the title given by the artist, has become one of the most beloved works of art, well known through the many bronze casts produced from this unique original statuette after the artist's death. She was not so warmly received when she first appeared. The critics protested almost unanimously that she was ugly, but had to acknowledge the work's astonishing realism as well as its revolutionary nature. The mixed media of the Little Dancer, basically a wax statuette dressed in real clothes, was very innovative, most of all because she was a "modern subject": a student dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet. Marie van Goethen, the model for the figure, was the daughter of a Belgian tailor and a laundress; her working-class background was typical of the Paris Opera school's ballerinas. These dancers were known as "rats de l'opéra," literally opera rats, presumably because of the scurrying around the stage in tiny fast-moving steps. But the derogatory association of rats with dirt and sewage is unavoidable. Though privileged as a servant of art, the Little Dancer was viewed in morally unfavorable terms by her contemporaries. Young, pretty, and poor, the ballet students were understood as potential targets of male "protectors." Degas understood the predicament of the Little Dancer -- what the contemporary reviewer Joris-Karl Huysmans called her "terrible reality." The Little Dancer is a very poignant, deeply felt work of art in which a little girl of fourteen, in spite of the difficult position in which she is placed, both physically and psychologically, struggles for a measure of dignity: her head is held high, though her arms and hands are uncomfortably stretched behind her back.
In the context of the evolution of sculpture, the Little Dancer is a groundbreaking work of art. The liberating idea that any medium or technique necessary to convey the desired effect is fair game may be traced back to this sculpture. Degas represented a working-class subject, though not an everyday one, with both realism and compassion, but without moralizing. In so doing, he captured with brilliant simplicity the difficult tension between art and life.
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen
MATERIAL: Yellow wax, hair, various textiles, wood base
DIMENSIONS: 99 cm (39 in.)
COLLECTION: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
ACCESSION NUMBER: 1999.80.28