Overview

At the sixth impressionist exhibition in the spring of 1881, Edgar Degas presented the only sculpture that he would ever exhibit in public. The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 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, following the artist's death.

The sculpture 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 considered a modern subject—a student dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet. Marie van Goethem, 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 "petits rats de l'opéra," literally opera rats, presumably because of their scurrying around the opera stage in tiny, fast–moving steps. But the derogatory association of the name with dirt and poverty was also intentional. Young, pretty, and poor, the ballet students also were 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.

Inscription

on proper left back corner of base: Degas

Marks and Labels

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Provenance

The artist [1834-1917]; his heirs;[1] Adrien-Aurélien Hébrard [1865-1937], Paris;[2] his daughter, Nelly Hébrard [1904-1985], Paris;[3] consigned 1955 to (M. Knoedler & Company, Inc., New York); purchased May 1956 by Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia; bequest 1999 to NGA.

Exhibition History

1881
_6me Exposition de Peinture_, 35 bd. des Capucines, Paris, 1881, no. 12, as _Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans (statuette en cire)_.
1920
Galerie A.A. Hébrard, Paris, 1920.
1920
Possibly Trois siècles d'art français, Paris, possibly 1920s-1930s.
1921
Exposition des Sculptures de Degas, Galerie A.A. Hébrard, Paris, 1921, no. 73.
1924
Exposition Degas au profit de la Ligue Franco-Anglo-Américaine contre le cancer: Peintures, pastels et dessins, sculptures, eaux-fortes, lithographies et monotypes, Galeries Georges Petit (sculpture shown at Galerie A.A. Hébrard), Paris, 1924, possibly no. 290 or not in cat.
1929
Possibly on loan to the Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1929.
1955
Edgar Degas 1834-1917: Original Wax Sculptures, M. Knoedler & Company, Inc., New York, 1955, no. 20, repro., as Ballet Dancer, Dressed.
1956
Sculpture by Degas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 1956.
1991
Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1991, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
1999
An Enduring Legacy: Masterpieces from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1999-2000, as _Little Dancer Fourteen Years Old (Ballet Dancer, Dressed)_, no cat.

Bibliography

1944
Rewald, John. Degas, Works in Sculpture: A Complete Catalogue. New York, 1944: no. XX.
1991
Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 277.
1991
Pingeot, Anne. Degas Sculptures. Paris, 1991: no. 73.
1995
Campbell, Sara. "A Catalogue of Degas' Bronzes." Apollo 142 (August 1995): 10-48, 46-47, fig. 71.
2000
National Gallery of Art Special Issue. Connaissance des Arts. Paris, 2000: 62, repro. 63.
2005
Bretell, Richard R., and Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark. Gauguin and Impressionism. Exh. cat. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth; Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. New Haven, 2005: 70, 108, 126, 128-129, 131-132, 136, 138, 140-142, 144, 146-147; figs. 79, 92, 102.
2005
Cate, Phillip Dennis, ed. Breaking the Mold: Sculpture in Paris from Daumier to Rodin. Exh. cat. Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. New Brunswick, 2005: fig. 24.
2010
Lindsay, Suzanne Glover, Daphne S. Barbour, and Shelley G. Sturman. Edgar Degas Sculpture. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2010: no. 15, 116-137, color repro.
2013
Marks, Peter. "Peck to Bring Degas Piece to Life, and On Pointe." Washington Post 136, no. 275 (September 6, 2013): C-2, color repro.

Technical Summary

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