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Degas's Dancers

Four Dancers

Degas, Four Dancers, c. 1899, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.122

Degas represented dancers in almost all mediums. His first known paintings, pastels, and drawings of dancers closely followed his two-dimensional works of horses in the 1860s. He apparently began making sculpture of dancers in the 1870s, the years during which he exhibited two-dimensional dance subjects so regularly that critics dubbed him the painter of dancers.[1] These works were also commercially successful; by 1880 he complained buyers pursued little else.[2] After 1900, dancers, with bathers, were his primary focus in all mediums. Degas was also personally interested in dance. He followed productions closely and critically, both at the Opéra and elsewhere.[3]

Asked why he painted the dance, Degas gave several answers. Ambroise Vollard maintains the artist claimed he wanted only to render movement and beautiful costumes, yet Louisine Havemeyer remembers him saying he painted dancers because ballet “is all that is left us of the combined movement of the Greeks.”[4] For certain recent scholars, dance is Degas’s own professional metaphor, making his dance subjects the projection of his vision of his own art as grueling, systematic work, the unveiling of a theatrical illusion.[5] Lillian Browse feels that dance “inevitably” drew Degas because its foundation, as with painting, was the human body.[6]

With Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, the most famous of them all, Degas’s figures of dancers are his most familiar sculpture. They are also the most abundant, with thirty-eight recorded (more than twice the number of horses and bathers) and thirty-five surviving waxes and bronzes of the rest.[7] The exceptional number of variants or recurring poses in this group suggests that Degas’s sculpture, like his paintings and pastels, explores subjects repeatedly, as he claimed to his friend Paul-Albert Bartholomé, so nothing is accidental.[8] Certain poses relate only broadly, while others are nearly identical. There are, for instance, eight extant figures represented in arabesque positions, six figures holding one foot, and four dancers at rest. Those that Paul Mellon gave to the National Gallery of Art permit close comparison. The collection has five figures in arabesque, three dancers putting on tights and stockings, three holding a foot, two in the elevated form of fourth position front (grand quatrième devant), and two bowing dancers. Differences in their scale, formal approach, material, and technique emphasize the complexities involved in deciphering Degas’s working method and dating the lifetime works.

Degas’s sculpture of dancers does not look like others of the period, which are as plentiful and varied as they are unfamiliar. Most of Degas’s dancers are anonymous, unlike those to which they are often compared, Auguste Barre’s fastidious portrait-statuettes of famous dancers in famous roles.[9] Even Degas’s most energetic figures are remote from the later picturesque figurines of generic ballerinas.[10] They are all united, nonetheless, by an underlying concept: as three-dimensional figurative arts, freestanding sculpture and dance are kindred forms at the center of a civilization, a view promoted by neoclassical theories that dominated art and dance well into the twentieth century. Figurative sculpture was the durable alter ego of dance, which, since antiquity, had served as sacred communion with the divine through movement, as one of the high arts, and as an essential means for social bonding.[11] This perceived affinity led to radical reforms, in the late eighteenth century, in the theory and practice of dance and to a surge in sculpture of dancers, both based on antique prototypes. The dancer-teacher Carlo Blasis upheld the classical statue as his model for the new dance, and the sculptor Antonio Canova devised new types of modern sculpture that gave three-dimensional form the “grace” applauded in frescoes of female dancers that had just been discovered at Herculaneum and Pompeii.[12] Conceived with a lyrical blend of softened “feminine” classicism and naturalism (fig. 1), Canova’s figures of female dancers made this weighty medium seem to float as well as move with trained grace. Such sculpture provided a lively, seductive “modern” alternative to the ponderous masculine grandeur of the dominant forms of neoclassical idealism. With Canova’s example for statues and Clodion’s (Claude Michel) for statuettes, this type took strong hold in France and was closely followed in the public forum.[13]


Fig. 1: Antonio Canova, Dancer, c. 1818-1822, marble, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Purchased 1968. Photo © National Gallery of Canada

Again without resembling it, Degas’s sculpture relates conceptually to another category of dancer figure that focused on social types — familiar, exotic, or historical. Dancers were, according to period theorists, telling ethno-graphic evidence of a nation or race, whose movement and instruments defined their identity as much as their physiognomies (facial and figure types) and clothing. Such a view tacitly justified the sensual appeal of lively figures in picturesque costumes, encouraging an abundance of sculpture of national and ethnic types after 1830.[14] Epitomized by Francisque-Joseph Duret’s celebrated Neapolitan Fisherboy Dancing the Tarantella (Memory of Naples) (c. 1830 – 1832, life-sized bronze, Musée du Louvre, Paris, serial statuettes), the art-bronze market offered myriad colorful national dancer types — Breton, Roman, and even Canadian.[15] Many were animated classicizing nudes with related instruments and dress; some, however, such as Jean-Alexandre-Joseph Falguière’s Danseuse Egyptienne (1873, marble, present location unknown), featured ethnic physiognomy and movement, combining claims for documentary truth with lively lines and extravagant polychromy.[16] Such picturesque and decorative elements seem startlingly alien to Degas’s sober Little Dancer, a close social study with a distinctly undecorative polychromy, but the critics’ evaluation of their fidelity to social type is remarkably consistent.[17] Degas’s smaller nude dancers also subtly fit the ethnographic category because they, too, were made to authentically render physical type. According to one model, Degas claimed to base these statuettes exclusively on trained dancers because no other model offered the body and movement shaped by their unique lives and schooling, a naturalist principle that Degas apparently applied firmly to dancers.[18]

Considered historically, Degas’s female-centered dance images grow out of the rare historical moment in which the ballerina eclipsed the male dancer, who dominated French ballet until the late eighteenth century and returned, as an equal celebrity, in the early twentieth with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.[19] The ballerina was the darling of romantic ballet and French dance in its glory.[20] By Degas’s time, however, the French School was at its lowest point.[21] In the 1850s the Opéra dance master Giovanni Léopold Adice conceded a technical and creative crisis in France, intensifying the long rivalry between the Italian and French Schools of dance; Italy was supreme once again, its ballerinas adored even at the Paris Opéra.[22] Critics and amateurs of dance in Paris heatedly debated what the French School might take from the Italian without compromising national pride.[23]

The many manuals and critical reviews of French technique and style testify to the reform effort. Degas’s study of dancers’ movements may suggest his awareness of the issues behind the technical rigor demanded of student and star alike, as well as of the stylistic debates under way. That possibility invites new ways of looking at his annotated drawings of flawed positions, which scholars regularly uphold as evidence of his knowledge and powers of observation.[24] Degas’s freestanding figures of dancers offer an especially close parallel to the live dancer, their three-dimensionality being potentially more informative than drawings’ two-dimensionality. By extension, their undress provides the optimal conditions for studying anatomy and position, making them richer equivalents to Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of undressed dancers in action.[25]

In formal terms, Degas’s surviving figures of dancers are more grounded than the dancers in his two-dimensional work, some of whom stand en pointe or are represented midjump.[26] Though some bend, extend, and balance on one leg, most stand with heels fully to the ground and do not leap, a position that would require suspension on their armatures like two of the horse figures (Horse Galloping, Turning the Head to the Right, the Feet Not Touching the Ground, cat. 6a, and Horse Trotting, the Feet Not Touching the Ground). Degas’s two-dimensional images of dancers otherwise lack some of the most extreme poses seen in his sculpture of dancers, suggesting his separate interests in the three-dimensional projects.

Without the trappings of their profession, most of these figures may attest to the closest meshing of the dancer and artist in the artist’s domain.[27] Among the subtle dynamics affected by this fusion is viewpoint for these statuettes of dancers. Ballet is performed for an audience, with a fixed vantage point in front of the stage that orients the dancer even in the classroom. Viewpoint is defining to choreography, directing the dancer to follow and face specific directions, even upstage (backward). Just as fundamentally, the dancer’s position vis-à-vis the spectator is built into some of the technical terms.[28] Without a fixed setting for the freestanding sculptural dancers, however, their poses alone may suggest a favored viewpoint by ballet’s standards. Some figures that face forward, as in a révérence (bow), place the viewer somewhere in front; arabesques that are traditionally profile poses urge informed viewers to regard the figure’s side; three of Degas’s arabesques were successively called ouvert and croisée to signal viewpoint. The latter points to an important feature of dance language, that a position changes name according to the dancer’s spatial relationship to the audience. Without any guidelines from the artist (as in a title), the orientation of freestanding figures gains flexibility.

The sculptural figures offer different and even unique viewing issues. Most are worked fully in the round and suggest Degas’s concern with the many bodily factors that shape dance movements aesthetically and anatomically for their ideal viewpoint. Simultaneously, they display their strengths as freestanding sculpture, with graceful and lively lines and worked surfaces from most vantage points — even from above. Without dismissing the traditional dance viewer, Degas may have privileged the maker in his sculpture. It is tempting to see him, in his own creative domain (the studio), as both sculptor and ballet master circling the posed dancer, relentlessly critiquing or revising every bodily nuance to achieve the desired lines.

The inherited titles for Degas’s sculpture of dancers are especially problematic. The original French versions have no consistent technical language for dance movements and several puzzling terms. Even with the many possibilities available, certain titles suggest that A. A. Hébrard did not always consult experts when he titled the bronzes for their first exhibition in 1921. Their English counterparts are vexing as well. Though English-language dance texts typically cite positions and movements in French, those attached to Degas’s figures are in English, often mistranslated, and some without key technical terms.

For reasons that remain unclear, Hébrard also named certain of Degas’s dancer figures by a dance term without reference to the performer (Spanish Dance, Fourth Position Front, the arabesques), a pattern that remained intact until Anne Pingeot altered some of those titles to feature the dancer.[29] This catalogue, however, retains the traditional versions derived from Hébrard.

Though subject to perhaps unresolvable debate, Degas’s poses offer many possible insights. Studying them within the context of a period aesthetic, or even the range of contemporary aesthetic choices, sheds light on a maligned — therefore little-studied — transitional period in French ballet.[30] Thus the following entries consider the received titles for the sculpture in light of terms used in late nineteenth-century France and the represented poses in light of possible current forms.

1. Ronald Pickvance, Degas 1879, exh. cat. (Edinburgh, 1979), 17.
2. Degas to Ludovic Halévy, c. September 1880, in Michael Pantazzi, “Chronology II,” in Jean Sutherland Boggs et al., Degas, exh. cat. (New Yorks and Ottawa, 1988), 219.
3. Henri Loyrette, “Degas à l’Opéra,” in Degas inédit: Actes du Colloque Degas, Musée d’Orsay 18–20 avril 1988 (Paris, 1989), 46–63; Linda D. Muehlig, Degas and the Dance, exh. cat. (Northampton, MA, 1979), 6; Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall, Degas and the Dance, exh. cat. (New York, 2002).
4. Ambroise Vollard, Degas (1834–1917) (Paris, 1924), 109 – 110; Louisine W. Havemeyer, Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector, ed. Susan Alyson Stein (New York, 1993), 256.
5. Lillian Browse, Degas Dancers (Boston, 1949), 53; Theodore Reff, “Edgar Degas and the Dance,” Arts Magazine 53, no. 3 (November 1978): 147 – 148; Muehlig, Degas and the Dance, 6.
6. Browse, Degas Dancers, 28.
7. Galerie A. A. Hébrard, Exposition des Sculptures de Degas, Mai–Juin 1921, exh. brochure (Paris, 1921), cats. 1 – 37, 73. The artist’s posthumous inventory (Caroline Durand-Ruel Godfroy, “Inventaire de la succession,” in Anne Pingeot, Degas: Sculptures [Paris, 1991], nos. 26, 39) lists only two dancers, yet the actions described for many “female nudes” or “women” are so distinctive, as individual entries demonstrate, that they probably correspond to works later associated with dance. The National Gallery of Art has twenty-three waxes of dancers, bronzes accompanying two waxes, a bronze of Dancer with a Tambourine, and a foundry plaster of Little Dancer.
8. Degas to Paul-Albert Bartholomé, January 17, [1886], in Marcel Guérin, ed., Lettres de Degas, rev. and expanded ed. (Paris, 1945), 119.
9. Charles W. Millard, The Sculpture of Edgar Degas (Princeton, 1976), 74; Richard Kendall, with contributions by Douglas W. Druick and Arthur Beale, Degas and the Little Dancer, exh. cat. (New Haven and London, 1998), 26 – 27, figs. 11, 12.
10. Richard Kendall, Degas Beyond Impressionism, exh. cat. (London, 1996), 36, fig. 189; Pierre Kjellberg, Bronzes du XIXe siècle: Dictionnaire des sculpteurs (Paris, 1987), 616 – 617, repro. For a portrait head of one known dancer, Mathilde Salle. Gary Tinterow’s arguments, in Boggs et al., Degas, cat. 262, that one figure resembles prima ballerina Marie Sanlaville, are unpersuasive; many dancers of those years have similarly broad and strong features.
11. Carlo Blasis, The Code of Terpsichore: A Practical and Historical Treatise, on the Ballet, Dancing, and Pantomime; with a Complete History of the Art of Dancing, trans. R. Barton (London, 1828), 5 – 48; Raoul Charbonnel, La Danse: Comment on dansait, comment on danse (Paris, 1899); Maurice Emmanuel, La Danse grecque antique d’après les monuments figurés (Paris, 1896; reprint: Geneva and Paris, 1987).
12. Francesca Falcone, “The Arabesque: A Compositional Design,” Dance Chronicle: Studies in Dance and the Related Arts 19, no. 3 (1996): 231–253; eadem, “The Evolution of the Arabesque in Dance,” Dance Chronicle: Studies in Dance and the Related Arts 22, no. 1 (1999): 71–117. For Canova’s contribution, see also Giuseppe Pavanello, L’Opera complete di Canova (Milan, 1976), cats. 172, 230 – 233, D74 – D83, repro. For Blasis’s focus on sculpture as a model for dance, see Blasis, Code of Terpsichore, 51, 75.
13. For example, Jules Bonnaffé’s marble Female Dancer in the 1861 Salon (no. 3186, present location unknown) and Louis-Charles Janson’s plaster Female Dancer in the 1866 Salon (no. 2827, present location unknown). See Stanislas Lami, Dictionnaire des sculpteurs de l’école française au dix-neuvième siècle, 4 vols. (Paris, 1914 – 1921), 1:130, 3:207, and illustrations in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Documentation de Sculpture, Bonnaffé dossier.
14. Ethnographic views of the dancer and dance appear in Blasis, Code of Terpsichore; Théophile Gautier, “The Spanish Dancers,” in Ivor Guest, ed. and trans., “Théophile Gautier on Spanish Dancing,” Dance Chronicle: Studies in Dance and the Related Arts 10, no. 1 (1987): 14 – 19; Gaston Vuillier, A History of Dancing from the Earliest Ages to Our Own Times (New York, 1898), 235 – 288.
15. Lami, Dictionnaire des sculpteurs, 1:282 – 283, 3:345, 4:231.
16. Nineteenth-Century European Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors, and Sculpture, auction catalog, Christie’s (New York, October 13, 1994), lot 171, repro. Others include Charles Cordier’s bronze statuettes of Jewish and Moorish dancers (1856) and Louis-Auguste Théodore Rivière’s statuettes of Moorish, Algerian, and Asian dancers (1890s to the early twentieth century). See, respectively, Laure de Margerie and Édouard Papet, Charles Cordier, 1827–1905: L’Autre et l’ailleurs, exh. cat. (Paris, 2004), cats. 169 – 173, repro.; Colette Dumas, “Théodore Rivière, 1857–1912: Sa Vie son oeuvre” (PhD diss., Université Paul Valéry, 1997); Kjellberg, Bronzes du XIXe siècle, 572 – 573, repro.
17. Curiously, the cabaret performer, familiar in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, seems to be absent from the sculptural repertory of dancers. The closest counterpart may be Auguste Rodin’s figures based on cancan dancers and acrobats, which are little concerned with social type. See Cécile Goldscheider, “Rodin et la danse,” Art de France 3 (1963): 334. By contrast, figures of modern dancers are plentiful. One celebrated dancer represented often in sculpture is Loïe Fuller, as in Louis-Auguste Théodore Rivière’s Fuller Performing the Lily Dance (c. 1898, marble, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) and François Rupert Carabin’s bronzes of Fuller. Kjellberg, Bronzes du XIXe siècle, 170; Nadine Lehni and Étienne Martin, F. R. Carabin, 1862–1932, exh. cat. (Strasbourg, 1993). For Rodin’s images of modern dancers, see Juliet Bellow, “Reforming Dance: Auguste Rodin’s Nijinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune,” Journal of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University 3 (2002 – 2003): 172–185.
18. See Little Dancer and Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot. Degas’s In a Café (Absinthe Drinker) (1875 – 1876, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) is instead known to be based on role-playing models, in this case pantomimist Ellen Andrée and engraver Marcellin Desboutin. See Henri Loyrette, in Boggs et al., Degas, 172, repro.
19. Ivor Guest, Le Ballet de l’Opera de Paris: Trois siècles d’histoire et de tradition, rev. and expanded ed. (Paris, 2001); Carol Lee, Ballet in Western Culture: A History of Its Origins and Evolution (New York, 2002).
20. Ivor Guest, The Romantic Ballet in Paris (Middletown, CT, 1966); Lee, Ballet in Western Culture, 141.
21. Among the first to mention this in relation to Degas’s dance subjects is Browse, Degas Dancers, 46, 49 – 52.
22. Giovanni Léopold Adice, Théorie de la gymnastique de la danse théâtrale (Paris, 1859), 50. For the rivalry, see Arthur M. Saint-Léon, De l’État actuel de la danse (Lisbon, 1856); Agrippina Vaganova, Basic Principles of Classical Ballet: Russian Ballet Technique, trans. Anatole Chujoy, 4th ed. (New York, 1969).
23. Among others, Robert Quinault, “La Danse en France sous la IIIe République,” conference paper of unknown date, AID 2209, Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra, Paris.
24. Most recently, DeVonyar and Kendall, Degas and the Dance, 146 – 147, figs. 160 – 162.
25. Eadweard Muybridge, Muybridge’s Complete Human and Animal Locomotion, 3 vols. (New York, 1979), 1: pl. 370, 3: pls. 195 – 196.
26. For example, Degas’s paintings entitled Le Pas battu (L. 568 – 569, present location unknown) represent the airborne phase of the grand pas battu. An exception among sculptural examples is a bronze (Hébrard cast 72), based on a lost wax, entitled Dancer Moving Forward, Arms Raised, Right Leg Forward.
27. Other scholars argue the state of undress emphasizes the artfulness of Degas’s nude dancers, whether updated by modern naturalism (the deshabillée) (Richard Thomson, Degas: The Nudes [New Yorks, 1988], 43) or an invocation of ancient Greek sculpture (DeVonyar and Kendall, Degas and the Dance, 236).
28. The term ouvert (open) is for a posture that opens the dancer’s body to the audience, for instance. For examples of body and stage direction, see Thalia Mara, The Language of Ballet: A Dictionary (Princeton, 1987), frontispiece (“Directions of the Body in Space”), 2 – 6.
29. For instance, Pingeot, Degas: Sculptures, cat. 10.
30. Fisher-Stitt 1990.

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

Edgar Degas, 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, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1999