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    Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

    Edgar Degas

    Now adored, this original wax version of Edgar DegasLittle 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.

    Degas Wax Sculpture 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.

    Studies and Casts

    About the Artist

    The face of a young man with peachy-colored skin and dark hair fills this vertical painting. The man is lit from our left but is angled to slightly to our right, so his face is mostly in shadow. He looks at us from the corners of large, dark eyes. He has a straight nose, and his full lips are set in a line. He has a moustache and a trimmed beard that appears to connect under his chin, though this area is loosely painted so details are difficult to make out. His black hair is parted to one side and curls in a wave over his high forehead. Dark lapels connect over a white undergarment or scarf around his neck. The background is filled in with a chestnut-brown wash, and brushstrokes are visible throughout.

    Edgar Degas, Self-Portrait with White Collar, c. 1857, oil on paper on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1995.47.7

    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. 

    A light-skinned man wearing a voluminous, ocean-blue, hooded robe sits at a cloth-draped writing table and looks up, fingers splayed over an open book and a pen held in his other hand, in this vertical painting. The man and desk take up most of the composition, which has an arched top. The man’s shoulders and body are angled to our right, and he looks off in that direction in profile. His balding head is rimmed with white hair curving over the large ear we can see, and he has a trimmed white and gray beard and mustache. His prominent nose is pointed, and his lips are closed. Light glints off the robe he wears so it shimmers in shades of topaz, aquamarine, and midnight blue. Voluminous white sleeves emerge under the mantle and are edged with narrow lace cuffs. His left hand, to our right, rests on an open book, which is propped against one or two other tomes. Near the edge of the table, two quills stand in the corners of a lidded inkwell, and a round, silver blotter, shaped like an upside-down chalice, and a lidded silver box sit nearby. The man’s chair has a tall post next to his shoulder to our left with a teardrop-shaped, gold finial. A second post, near his wrist, is lower and topped with a gold orb. The chair is draped in the same deep, raspberry-pink of the square table at which he sits. The tablecloth is edged with a wide band of gold along the bottom, and filigree-like gold decorations line the seams or folds at the corners. Brushstrokes are visible in many areas, especially in the colorfully charged blue and pink fabric. Beyond the man, to our right, a statuette of a person wearing a long, white robe over a white dress holds a baby. The clothing is edged with gold, and she wears a sphere-like gold crown. The baby also wears white and holds up one hand. The statuette stands on a platform supported by S-shaped corbels, and could have a projecting, squared awning over the top. This area is more loosely painted so some details are difficult to make out. In the background to our left, a wooden door stands open next to a dark space just behind the man’s head, so his profile is picked out against the shadow. The floor beneath is earth brown.

    El Greco, Saint Ildefonso, c. 1603/1614, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.83

    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.








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