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Fourth Position Front, on the Left Leg

Technical Notes

This is one of three sculptures in a similar pose. Based on the inventory photograph of the National Gallery of Art sculpture of the same title and a 1955 photograph of the third variant in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, both depicting similar external armatures,[1] it is likely that this sculpture, too, was originally supported by an external armature extending from her head, looping upward and around to the base behind the figure, with a second armature supporting the extended right leg. Original external armatures were most likely removed after 1955 and replaced with the armature that enters the right hip today. A new plaster mound, somewhat pyramid-shaped, was added to the top of the wooden base at the back in order to accommodate the new armature.[2]

Fourth Position Front

Fig. 1: Degas, Fourth Position Front, on the Left Leg, radiograph, profile view

Examination of the radiograph (fig. 1) reveals that the metal armature inside this figure is not as substantial as that of another work by the same name (see cat. 27, fig. 2). Three heavy wires make up the central bundle rather than five, and two more wires of a thinner gauge are wrapped around the corks in the central core. A single wire, separate from the core, supports the head and appears cut off at the top where it would have exited to become an external armature. Five wires gently outline the shape of the head and project into the arms. The raised right arm must have presented difficulties, as several short pieces of wire are inserted at the shoulder join. Each leg has one main internal heavy-gauge iron[3] wire; in the right leg the wire connects to the central support in the buttocks area and extends out to the toe; in the left, the main wire extends into the base. At many points the internal armatures are visible on the exterior. Most prominent among these is the galvanized-iron[4] armature under the raised left arm on the underside of the left hand that helps define the cupped shape. Circular holes under the right thigh and a gash under the right calf indicate areas where wires that supported the extended leg were subsequently removed after Degas’s death.

The National Gallery’s two sculptures in this pose are very close in height, but in this figure Degas greatly exaggerated the extension of the right leg. In this figure also, not only is the right leg about 6 millimeters longer than the left; it is almost 8 millimeters longer than that of the figure in cat. 27.

Fourth Position Front, on the Left Leg

Fig. 2 Degas, Fourth Position Front, on the Left Leg, detail showing face

The sculpture was made from beeswax with starch having no added fats or resins.[5] The wax was pigmented with lead chromate yellow, barium sulfate, strontium yellow, charcoal black, red iron oxide, terre verte, red lake, and lithopone.[6] The color of the surface varies from olive or yellow-green to darker and discolored areas, most noticeable on the face. The area around the dancer’s eyes, mouth, and chin are yellow-green, while the nose, cheeks, and forehead are dark (fig. 2). This patterning may be due to discoloration or to partial cleaning of previously applied paint and coatings such as shellac.[7] Several of the repaired areas, including the left buttock and thigh, the right hip where the new armature was inserted, and the added wax for impressing the estate cachet, were made with a red wax that was painted dark gray.

The material composition of this work, pigmented beeswax with starch, is significantly different from that of cat. 27, which is composed of plastiline with a wax cladding, and may provide an aid for placing the pieces chronologically. Writing in 1919, Paul-André Lemoisne noted that his friend Degas modeled his pieces by first making one in clay, followed by a plastiline version, and finally one in wax.[8] This observation suggests that Degas made the plastiline and wax-­covered version prior to fashioning this wax one at the same scale. The radiographs attest that the piece filled with plastiline required a heavier armature and substantial repairs to the extended leg. The third variant, the diminutive beeswax figure at the Musée d’Orsay, with a lighter internal armature and fewer repairs,[9] is likely the third in the sequence, created once the construction issues had been resolved.

The surface is fairly smooth, while some areas such as the back of the head and the base show evidence of having been modeled with small pellets of wax. A comb or toothed tool was “raked” across the top of the base on either side of the left foot, leaving long vertical striations that slightly mimic the grain pattern of the wooden base. Superficial incisions, cut lines, are present, bisecting the figure’s head, torso, and appendages. In repaired areas, they are interrupted.

Only the upper layer of the wooden base appears to be original. A metal plate projecting from underneath the wax base and screwed into the top of the wood was used to secure the armature wires in place. Longitudinal and cross-sectional slices of cork were placed directly atop the metal plate and wood surface, and then covered in wax pellets to shape the base.


The artist, Paris; his five heirs; (Adrien Aurélien Hébrard, Paris); his widow, Mme Adrien Aurélien Hébrard, and/or his daughter, Nelly Hébrard, Paris; consigned 1955, with most of the other lifetime works, to (M. Knoedler and Company, Inc., New York); sold May 25, 1956, to Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia.


Edgar Degas, 1834 – 1917: Original Wax Sculptures, M. Knoedler and Company, Inc., New York, 1955, cat. 42 (exh. cat. Knoedler 1955). Sculpture by Degas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 1956 (no exh. cat.). Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art, 1991 (exh. cat. Luchs 1991, unnumbered). An Enduring Legacy: Masterpieces from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, 1999 – 2000 (no exh. cat.).

1. For the inventory photograph of cat. 27, see cat. 27, fig. 1, and for a photograph of the Musée d’Orsay variant taken in 1955 that shows the sculpture being prepared for exhibition with the external armature still intact, see Barbour and Sturman, “Degas the Sculptor,” fig. 4.
2. This pyramid-shaped plaster mound is similar to ones added to the base on many works to accommodate the new armature.
3. Barbara H. Berrie, Analysis Report, July 12, 2002, NGA conservation files.
4. Ibid.
5. Suzanne Quillen Lomax, Analysis Report, October 7, 2003, NGA conservation files.
6. Michael Palmer, Analysis Report, November 20, 2003, NGA conservation files. High quantities of lead were also noted by Berrie 2002, using XRF analy­sis of the surface, corroborating the microscopic identification of lead chromate yellow.
7. The presence of shellac, especially in new and repaired areas, was noted during ultraviolet examination.
8. Paul-André Lemoisne, "Les statuettes de Degas," Art et Décoration 214 (September–October 1919): 115.
9. For a discussion of the composition and images of the radiograph, see France Drilhon, Sylvie Colinart, and Anne Tassery-Lahmi, in Jean-René Gaborit and Jack Ligot, eds., Sculptures en cire de l'ancienne Egypte à l'art abstrait, Notes et documents des musées de France (Paris, 1987), cat. 67. Perhaps fewer armatures were required for the diminutive wax in the Orsay because the figure is smaller and the cantilevered leg does not carry as much weight. But it is also possible that the Orsay piece was the last of the series to be fabricated and, after having numerous problems in the right leg of the two larger works, Degas purposefully made the entire third variant smaller.

Fourth Position Front, on the Left Leg

Edgar Degas, Fourth Position Front, on the Left Leg, c. 1885/1890, pigmented beeswax, metal armature, cork, on wooden base, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon 1999.80.8