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.