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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

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
1880
Goetschy, Gustave. "Indépendants et impressionistes." Le Voltaire (6 April 1880): 2.
1881
Bertall [Charles-Albert d'Arnoux]. "Exposition: Des Peintres intransigeants et nihilistes: 36, boulevard des Capucines." Paris-Journal (21 April 1881): 1.
1881
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.
1881
Comtesse Louise. "Lettres familières sur l'art: Salon de 1881." La France nouvelle (1-2 May 1881): 3.
1881
de Charry, Paul. "Les Indépendants." Le Pays (22 April 1881): 3.
1881
de Mont, Élie [Elisée-Louis de Montagnac]. "L'Exposition du boulevard des Capucines." La Civilization (21 April 1881): 2.
1881
de Villars, Nina [Marie-Anne Gaillard, Mme Hector de Callias Villard]. "Variétés: Exposition des artistes indépendants." Le Courrier du Soir (23 April 1881): 2.
1881
Enault, Louis. "Chronique." Moniteur des arts (15 April 1881): 1.
1881
Ephrussi, Charles. "Exposition des artistes indépendants." La Chronique des Arts et de la Curiosité (16 April 1881): 126.
1881
Goetschy, Gustave. "Exposition des artistes indépendants." Le Voltaire (5 April 1881): 1-2.
1881
Mantz, Paul. "Exposition des oeuvres des artistes indépendants." Le Temps (23 April 1881): 3.
1881
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.
1881
Trianon, Henry. "Sixième Exposition de peinture par un groupe d'artistes: 35, boulevard es Capucines." Le Constitutionnel (24 April 1881): 2-3.
1882
Champier, Victor. "La Société des artistes indépendants." L'Année artistique: 1881. Paris, 1882: 167-169.
1883
Huysmans, Joris-Karl. "L'Exposition des indépendants en 1881." In L'Art Moderne. Paris, 1883: 225-257.
1918
Gsell, Paul. "Edgar Degas, statuaire." La Renaissance de l'Art Français et des Industries de Luxe (December 1918): 373-378.
1944
Rewald, John. Degas, Works in Sculpture: A Complete Catalogue. Translated by John Coleman and Noel Moulton. New York, 1944: no. XX, repro.
1961
Havemeyer, Louisine B. Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector. New York, 1961: 254-255.
1989
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.
1991
Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 277.
1991
Loyrette, Henri. Degas. Paris, 1991: 387, 391-394, 402, 612-614, 672, repro.
1991
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.
1991
Pingeot, Anne. Degas Sculptures. Paris, 1991: no. 73, repro.
1995
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.
1995
Campbell, Sara. "A Catalogue of Degas' Bronzes." Apollo 142 (August 1995): 10-48, 46-47, fig. 71.
1996
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.
1996
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.
1998
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.
1998
Hargrove, June. "Degas's 'Little 14-year-old Dancer:' Madonna of the Third Republic?" Sculpture Journal 2 (1998): 97-105, fig. 1.
1998
Hargrove, June. "Degas's 'Little Dancer' in the World of Pantomime." Apollo 147, no. 432 (February 1998): 15-21, fig. 1.
1999
Schaller, Catherine. "Edgar Degas et la physiognomonie." Annales d'histoire de l'art et d'archéologie 21 (1999): 103-111, fig. 5.
2000
National Gallery of Art Special Issue. Connaissance des Arts. Paris, 2000: 62, repro. 63.
2001
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.
2002
Czestochowski, Joseph S., and Anne Pingeot. Degas--Sculptures. Catalogue Raisonné of the Bronzes. Memphis, 2002: 265, repro.
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." The Washington Post 136, no. 275 (6 September 2013): C-2, color repro.
2014
Kennicott, Philip. "As Disturbing as Enchanting." Washington Post 137, no. 318 (October 19, 2014): E13, color fig.
2016
Morton, Mary. "Paul Mellon: Private collector for the public." In Collecting for the Public: Works that Made a Difference. Essays for Peter Hecht. Edited by Bart Cornelis, Ger Luijten, Louis van Tilborgh, and Tim Zeedijk. Translated by Michael Hoyle. London, 2016: 32 fig. 11, 33, 37.
Explore This Work

The bourgeois admitted to contemplate this wax creature remain stupefied for a moment and one hears fathers cry: “God forbid my daughter should become a dancer.”

Paul Mantz, “Exposition des œuvres des artistes independants,” Le Temps 

Now adored, this original wax version of Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was reviled by most critics when it was shown at the 1881 impressionist exhibition in Paris. Art critic Elie de Mont was flabbergasted: “I don’t ask that art should always be elegant, but I don’t believe that its role is to champion the cause of ugliness.” The diminutive figure, the only sculpture Degas exhibited publicly, was described variously as “repulsive,” “vicious,” and “a threat to society.” Modeled in colored wax and adorned with real hair and a fabric costume, Little Dancer decisively broke with 19th-century academic practice by introducing unusual mixed materials and frankly representing a provocative modern subject; Degas added to the controversy by exhibiting it like an anthropological specimen in a glass vitrine.

Degas’ uncannily realistic depiction of an “opera rat,” as young dancers with the Paris Opera ballet were known, was a deeply unsettling challenge both to academic tradition and to French bourgeois society. It forced viewers to confront the seamy side of the ballet, the cultural institution at the center of metropolitan life. The rats, including the model for this figure, mostly came from working-class families and were popularly understood to be vulnerable to moral corruption at the hands of well-off suitors. Degas visualized this potential link with vice by flattening the model’s facial features, exaggerating the low forehead, and making the jaw protrude, adjustments that conformed to popular scientific notions that linked physiognomy and degeneracy. His novel use of unorthodox materials—hair, silk hair ribbon, linen bodice, muslin tutu, and satin slippers—underscored his determination to make naturalism rather than idealization the standard for modern sculptural practice.

Little Dancer is an unflinching look at a troubling working-class subject, but it is also endowed with humanity. Poised between girl and woman, the bony figure of model Marie van Goethem, her body shaped by endless practice, is simultaneously vulnerable and proud. Her stance atop a wooden base reminiscent of a rehearsal floor is casual by ballet standards, but far from relaxed. The right foot is placed far forward and turned out 90 degrees. Her arms are stretched uncomfortably behind her back, the fingers of both hands intertwined. With her shoulders back and her head held high and slightly upturned, her posture is erect and dignified, even haughty, a bearing emphasized in ballet training, but here particularly poignant. 

Degas never exhibited the sculpture again, and Little Dancer was largely forgotten until it was rediscovered, together with dozens of other wax sculptures, in the artist’s studio after his death in 1917. Most of these original sculptures are now in the National Gallery of Art’s collection, while bronze casts made from these wax originals after Degas’ death can be found around the world.

Slideshow: Studies and Casts

 

Degas' Wax Sculptures and Bronze Casts

Outside a close circle of friends, Degas’ fascination with making sculpture was little known during his lifetime. His sculptural work was largely private and exploratory, and he only ever exhibited one piece: the National Gallery of Art’s original wax version of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1878–1881). But when his studio was inventoried after his death in 1917, more than 150 sculptures, mostly in wax, were discovered. Many were in pieces and badly deteriorated but more than 70—representing mostly dancers, horses, and women—were salvaged and repaired.

Degas’ heirs contracted with the French foundry Hébrard to cast the repaired sculptures in bronze even while preserving the original wax figures (which for many years were thought to have been lost or destroyed). Beginning in 1919, Hébrard set out to make 22 casts of each sculpture; some series were not finished, but the foundry cast at least 25 copies of the Little Dancer. This is why bronze versions of Little Dancer and other Degas sculptures are now found in many collections internationally.

In the 1950s Paul Mellon (1907–1999), a benefactor of the National Gallery of Art, bought the 69 known surviving sculptures that Degas had created during his lifetime (several were destroyed in the casting process). Mellon eventually donated 52 of these works to the Gallery, making it the largest repository of Degas’ original sculptures.

Self-Portrait with White Collar

Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait with White Collar, c. 1857

About the Artist

The eldest son of a Parisian banker, Edgar Degas reinforced his formal academic art training by copying old master paintings both in Italy, where he spent three years (1856–1859), and at the Louvre. Degas early on developed a rigorous drawing style and a respect for line that he would maintain throughout his career. His first independent works were portraits and history paintings but in the early 1860s he began to paint scenes from modern life. He started with the world of horse racing and by the end of the 1860s had also turned his attention to the theater and ballet.

Soon after a trip to New Orleans, where his uncle and two of his brothers worked in the cotton trade, in 1873, Degas banded together with other artists interested in organizing independent exhibitions without juries. He became a founding member of what soon would be known as the impressionists, participating in six impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886.  

Despite his long and fruitful association with the impressionists, Degas preferred to be called a realist. His focus on urban subjects, artificial light, and careful drawing distinguished him from other impressionists, such as Claude Monet, who worked outdoors, painting directly from their subjects.  A steely observer of everyday scenes, Degas tirelessly analyzed positions, gestures, and movement. 

Saint Ildefonso

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), Saint Ildefonso, c. 1603/1614

Degas once owned this painting by El Greco. 

Degas developed distinctive compositional techniques, viewing scenes from unexpected angles and framing them unconventionally. He experimented with a variety of media, including pastels, photography, and monotypes, and he used novel combinations of materials in his works on paper and canvas and in his sculptures. He primarily viewed his sculpture as a means of researching movement and publicly exhibited only one, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1878–1881). 

Degas was frequently criticized for depicting unattractive models from Paris’ working class, but others, like realist novelist Edmond de Goncourt, championed Degas as “the one who has been able to capture the soul of modern life.” By the late 1880s, Degas was recognized as a major figure in the Parisian art world. Financially secure, he could be selective about exhibiting and selling his work. He also bought ancient and modern works for his own collection, including paintings by El Greco, Édouard Manet, and Paul Gauguin, who became close friends. Depressed by the limitations of his failing eyesight, he created nothing after 1912; at his death in 1917, he was hailed as a French national treasure. About 150 deteriorating clay and wax sculptures were found in Degas’ studio following his death. Their existence had been unknown to all but Degas’ closest associates.

Related Resources

Slideshow: Related Works by Degas