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.
on proper left back corner of base: Degas
Marks and Labels
The artist [1834-1917]; his heirs; Adrien-Aurélien Hébrard [1865-1937], Paris; his daughter, Nelly Hébrard [1904-1985], Paris; consigned 1955 to (M. Knoedler & Company, Inc., New York); purchased May 1956 by Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia; bequest 1999 to NGA.
- 6me Exposition de Peinture, 35 bd. des Capucines, Paris, 1881, no. 12, as Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans (statuette en cire).
- Galerie A.A. Hébrard, Paris, 1920.
- Possibly Trois siècles d'art français, Paris, possibly 1920s-1930s.
- Exposition des Sculptures de Degas, Galerie A.A. Hébrard, Paris, 1921, no. 73.
- 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.
- Possibly on loan to the Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1929.
- Edgar Degas 1834-1917: Original Wax Sculptures, M. Knoedler & Company, Inc., New York, 1955, no. 20, repro., as Ballet Dancer, Dressed.
- Sculpture by Degas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 1956.
- 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.
- 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.
- Goetschy, Gustave. "Indépendants et impressionistes." Le Voltaire (6 April 1880): 2.
- Bertall [Charles-Albert d'Arnoux]. "Exposition: Des Peintres intransigeants et nihilistes: 36, boulevard des Capucines." Paris-Journal (21 April 1881): 1.
- Claretie, Jules. "La Vie à Paris: Les Artistes indépendants." La Vie à Paris: 1881. Paris, 1881: 150-151. First published, with some variation, in Le Temps, 5 April 1881: 3.
- Comtesse Louise. "Lettres familières sur l'art: Salon de 1881." La France nouvelle (1-2 May 1881): 3.
- de Charry, Paul. "Les Indépendants." Le Pays (22 April 1881): 3.
- de Mont, Élie [Elisée-Louis de Montagnac]. "L'Exposition du boulevard des Capucines." La Civilization (21 April 1881): 2.
- de Villars, Nina [Marie-Anne Gaillard, Mme Hector de Callias Villard]. "Variétés: Exposition des artistes indépendants." Le Courrier du Soir (23 April 1881): 2.
- Enault, Louis. "Chronique." Moniteur des arts (15 April 1881): 1.
- Ephrussi, Charles. "Exposition des artistes indépendants." La Chronique des Arts et de la Curiosité (16 April 1881): 126.
- Goetschy, Gustave. "Exposition des artistes indépendants." Le Voltaire (5 April 1881): 1-2.
- Mantz, Paul. "Exposition des oeuvres des artistes indépendants." Le Temps (23 April 1881): 3.
- Our Lady Correspondent. [Untitled, and unsigned, review of the Exposition des oeuvres des artistes indépendants]. Artist 2 (1 May 1881): 153. In Impressionists in England: The Critical Reception. Edited by Kate Flint. London, 1984: 41-43.
- Trianon, Henry. "Sixième Exposition de peinture par un groupe d'artistes: 35, boulevard es Capucines." Le Constitutionnel (24 April 1881): 2-3.
- Champier, Victor. "La Société des artistes indépendants." L'Année artistique: 1881. Paris, 1882: 167-169.
- Huysmans, Joris-Karl. "L'Exposition des indépendants en 1881." In L'Art Moderne. Paris, 1883: 225-257.
- Gsell, Paul. "Edgar Degas, statuaire." La Renaissance de l'Art Français et des Industries de Luxe (December 1918): 373-378.
- Rewald, John. Degas, Works in Sculpture: A Complete Catalogue. Translated by John Coleman and Noel Moulton. New York, 1944: no. XX, repro.
- Havemeyer, Louisine B. Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector. New York, 1961: 254-255.
- Degas inédit: Actes du Colloque Degas, Musée d'Orsay 18-21 avril 1988. Essays by Gary Tinterow and Anne M.P. Norton (translated by Jeanne Bouniort), and Douglas Druick. Paris, 1989: fig. 1, 327, 336-337.
- Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 277.
- Loyrette, Henri. Degas. Paris, 1991: 387, 391-394, 402, 612-614, 672, repro.
- Luchs, Alison. "The Degas Waxes, c. 1878 - c. 1911." In Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.: 1991: 182-183, repro.
- Pingeot, Anne. Degas Sculptures. Paris, 1991: no. 73, repro.
- Callen, Anthea. The Spectacular Body: Science, Method, and Meaning in the Work of Degas. New Haven and London, 1995: 1, 16, 21-29, 69, pl. 1.
- Campbell, Sara. "A Catalogue of Degas' Bronzes." Apollo 142 (August 1995): 10-48, 46-47, fig. 71.
- Berson, Ruth, ed. The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886 -- Documentation. 2 vols. San Francisco, 1996: 1:282-283, 330-337, 339, 344-345, 348-362, 366-371.
- Blühm, Andreas, et al. Essays by Wolfgang Drost and June Hargrove. In The Colour of Sculpture, 1840-1910. Exh. cat. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1996: 68-70, 105.
- Druick, Douglas. "Framing The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen." In Richard Kendall, with contributions by Douglas W. Druick and Arthur Beale. Degas and the Little Dancer. Exh. cat. Josyln Art Museum, Omaha. New Haven and London, 1998: 76-96, repro.
- Hargrove, June. "Degas's 'Little 14-year-old Dancer:' Madonna of the Third Republic?" Sculpture Journal 2 (1998): 97-105, fig. 1.
- Hargrove, June. "Degas's 'Little Dancer' in the World of Pantomime." Apollo 147, no. 432 (February 1998): 15-21, fig. 1.
- Schaller, Catherine. "Edgar Degas et la physiognomonie." Annales d'histoire de l'art et d'archéologie 21 (1999): 103-111, fig. 5.
- National Gallery of Art Special Issue. Connaissance des Arts. Paris, 2000: 62, repro. 63.
- Hargrove, June. "Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer: Madonna of the Third Republic?" In Horizons: Essays on art and Art Research. Edited by Hans-Jörg Heusser. Zurich, 2001: 147-156, fig. 1.
- Czestochowski, Joseph S., and Anne Pingeot. Degas--Sculptures. Catalogue Raisonné of the Bronzes. Memphis, 2002: 265, repro.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Marks, Peter. "Peck to Bring Degas Piece to Life, and On Pointe." The Washington Post 136, no. 275 (6 September 2013): C-2, color repro.
- Kennicott, Philip. "As Disturbing as Enchanting." Washington Post 137, no. 318 (October 19, 2014): E13, color fig.