Degas exhibited only one sculpture during his lifetime, the wax Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, at the Sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881 (that statuette is now in the National Gallery of Art). Many critics reacted with shock to its subject, which they found harshly realistic and even ugly, and to its unconventional incorporation of actual, rather than sculpturally imitated, fabric and hair.
In his other sculptures, not meant for exhibition, Degas worked less in pursuit of perfect forms than in restless exploration of movement and composition. Using soft, pliable materials, he built up his figures on makeshift armatures reinforced with brush handles, matches, or whatever else was at hand. The waxes, whose lumpish surfaces leave his labor visible, have a translucent character that conveys an astonishing sense of life.
Like the Little Dancer, The Tub employs actual as well as represented materials. The figure may be wax, the water plaster, but they occupy a real lead basin resting on a wooden base covered with plaster-soaked rags. In a bird's-eye view, the circular tub and square base create a foil for the convoluted twists of the figure. The result is an intriguing interplay of two-dimensional geometric shapes and three-dimensional natural forms.