Meet Marie van Goethem. The daughter of a laundress and a tailor from Belgium who had moved to France, Marie was a ballet student—one of the so-called "rats”—at the Paris Opera. For Degas, Marie represented the tension inherent in the life of the young dancer, displaying both the awkwardness of youth and the graceful promise of a great ballerina. Here, in Degas’ famous wax sculpture, she stands posed in a casual fourth position, her back arched, belly forward, hands clasped tightly behind her back.
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen
What did the public make of this giant doll, modeled in flesh-colored wax and wearing real clothing – including slippers, a tutu—and with a head of human hair. Degas exhibited the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen in the sixth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1881. Visitors to art exhibitions expected to see idealized figures in antiquarian drapery rendered in smooth, white marble or dark, shiny bronze. You can imagine that the skinny young dancer in modern cloth garments, with her protruding jaw and belly, was too strong a dose of naturalism for many viewers.
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878–1881
pigmented beeswax, clay, metal armature, rope, paintbrushes, human hair, silk and linen ribbon, cotton and silk tutu, linen slippers, on wooden base
overall without base: 98.9 x 34.7 x 35.2 cm (38 15/16 x 13 11/16 x 13 7/8 in.) weight: 49 lb. (22.226 kg)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
Degas repeatedly sketched Marie van Goethem in preparation for making the sculpture. He drew her from every angle, circling around her to capture each look and gesture. As he worked on the large version, Degas also modeled a smaller nude study in wax, experimenting with the dancer’s stance and posture, head and arm positions. Degas loved working with this malleable material, a dynamic medium that allowed him to experiment endlessly.
While the Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer was the only sculpture Degas exhibited during his lifetime, he made more than one hundred wax sculptures of dancers, bathing women, and horses and jockeys. Most have the freely modeled character of sketches, even though often built up over supporting armatures, with some features defined with precision. Just as he drew every part and motion of his subjects, he used sculpture to fully understand each nuance of a figure’s balance, gesture, and movement.