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History of the Project

Produced in a virtual documentary vacuum, Little Dancer was announced in a catalogue entry for the 1880 impressionist exhibition where, according to critics and the unhappy organizer, Gustave Caillebotte, it failed to appear.[1] Its title then was precisely the same as the following year, and the critic Gustave Goetschy relayed the rumor of its elaborate appearance.[2] Though Millard proposes that Degas planned instead to show the nude variant, Goetschy’s description makes it clear that the version he heard about, intended for exhibition, was dressed and close, if not identical, to the one shown the following year.[3]

Why a sculpture of this subject — and at that moment? For Kendall, the success of Cros and Ringel’s waxes at the Salon suggests it was time to fill the sculptural gap in the impressionist exhibitions.[4] Degas may have felt pressured by opposing drives around 1880, a market demand for his dancer paintings and the critics’ complaints about his lack of growth in his prime.[5] Little Dancer, a startlingly different, relatively large and complex sculpture, put such criticism to rest but also remained a unique effort in Degas’s public career.

These arguments might suggest that this figure was conceived as an exhibition piece during the years that exhibiting mattered to Degas. But as Sturman and Barbour suggest in the Technical Notes, the reverse (a post facto decision to exhibit) also seems plausible. The sculpture indeed seems to fit Degas’s broader artistic project at the time — his often-mentioned technical experimentation in the 1870s. These were the years in which Degas explored an especially wide range of mediums and formats, using both new and traditional materials and techniques.[6]

The project is typically dated to the year the model turned fourteen, the age identified in the exhibition title, providing a period of three years from “start” to “finish.”[7] Marie Van Goethem was thought to have turned fourteen in 1878 when her birth date was thought to be February 1864, providing a point of departure for sketches associated with the project. Her actual birth the following year (June 7, 1865)[8] revises those dates, suggesting that the project began instead in 1879.

However, there is room to speculate that studies associated with the project include examples that date earlier — again because of the presumed model, Marie. The two bodies of work attached to the project — the single wax “study” and various sheets of drawings — all seem to represent the same model as she physically matured.[9] She is represented nude as a mostly flat-chested young girl, but among the dressed variants are ones, like the present sculpture, with a bodice with small cups for new breasts. The original date of 1878 thus might still stand to include the possibility that the modeling sessions began before she was fourteen, an age by which most girls have begun to develop breasts. That date coincides with Marie’s recorded admission as a student at the Opéra, though Degas had known at least her older sister Antoinette for some years before that. His drawings of other teenage dancers date around the same time, such as his sketches of fifteen-year-old Melina Darde.[10]

Four Studies of a Dancer

Fig. 1: Degas, Four Studies of a Dancer, c. 1878–1881, chalk and charcoal, heightened with gray wash and white, on buff wove paper, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photographer: Jean-Gilles Berizzi

Why Degas did not exhibit this figure in 1880, when Goetschy’s sources suggest it was in a relatively finished state — and with a finished vitrine — remains unknown.[11] The changes to what is now the core, discussed by Sturman and Barbour in the Technical Notes above, suggest he revised its characterization, possibly shifting from the coarser, more “simian” features seen in certain studies (see fig. 14, foreground, right) to the more delicate traits seen here.

Work in Progress: Drawings and Other Sculpture

Given the lack of useful letters or documents, scholars typically use a large body of drawings and a nude sculptural variant to map Little Dancer’s development, a process that raises important questions about how they fundamentally relate to the larger figure and to each other. Close to ten sheets, some with multiple studies, have been associated with both figures — few, curiously, in the relevant notebooks.[12]

Scholars have proposed various relationships between the drawings and sculpture over time. Some suggest traditional stages of image-building to assert that the drawings are for a sculpture, with the nude studies executed before the dressed ones, leading to the definitive dressed wax.[13] Kendall asserts that Degas returned temporarily to his earlier practice of working from the nude before turning to the dressed model because he faced an “unfamiliar challenge,” followed by a close sequence of life drawings from several viewpoints that fixed the figure three-dimensionally.[14] Shackelford sees the drawings (for him so formally and technically consistent that they suggest a “suite” of drawings) as the wellspring for the sculpture, with the nude figure as an intermediate study. None of the drawings was made deliberately for a sculpture, he argues; rather, they pursued Degas’s broader longtime interest in three-dimensionality.[15]

Study of a Nude Dancer

Fig. 2: Degas, Study of a Nude Dancer, c. 1878, black chalk and charcoal on mauve-pink laid paper. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Photo: The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Photographer: Jacques Lathion

The works themselves suggest the sculpture was an offshoot of a number of studies produced in response to one another, rather than as their goal and culmination. Taken as a group, if most depict Marie Van Goethem, then it seems likely that some that represent her flat-chested or even with budding breasts (see fig. 2) are earlier than others. Otherwise, all studies associated with the project (including the nude sculpture) represent slightly varying poses and body types, making any linear sequence problematic.[16] Sheets with multiple sketches of the dressed dancer include distinctly different costumes and hair, suggesting that they derive from separate modeling sessions or Degas changed what he saw (see fig. 3).[17] Two include color (pink tights and auburn hair) and white highlights on skin that might signal color notes for pastels or paintings (or simply color-oriented drawings). Elements for each of the sculptural figures can be found in individual studies on sheets with multiple sketches (coiffure, angle of the head and feet), and revisions to the drawings often parallel those in both waxes, especially the head and feet (see fig. 2).[18] Whether the drawing or the three-dimensional work prompted the change is open to question. It is also plausible that Degas worked directly from the model on the sculpture, his recorded practice late in life.[19]

Three Studies of a Dancer in Fourth Position

Fig. 3: Degas, Three Studies of a Dancer in Fourth Position, 1879/1880, charcoal and pastel with stumping, and touches of brush and black wash, on greyish-tan laid paper with blue fibers, laid down on gray wove paper, The Art Institute of Chicago, Bequest of Adele R. Levy, 1962.703. Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago

The dialogue between sculpture and drawings suggests a dynamic investigation across the mediums. In the Technical Notes, Sturman and Barbour demonstrate that the wax continued to be modified while under way; its lengthening from the shoulders up is a radical change despite the many full-length figure drawings. Similarly, the figure’s sculptural “study” is so complex (and similarly modified) that it can be considered a parallel project to the dressed variant, like it an ambitious sculptural spin-off from the ongoing inquiry that the drawings represent in greater abundance.

Public Debut: The 1881 Exhibition

Though the critics’ views appear repeatedly throughout this entry, studying them synthetically within their original context provides vital insights into the contemporary art world’s first reaction to Little Dancer and its viewing circumstances.

Little Dancer’s public life during Degas’s lifetime was stunningly brief: it appeared for only half the exhibition of 1881 (two weeks).[20] Despite a year of tantalizing publicity, the published response ranged from hot to neutral; some critics ignored the statuette altogether. That seems surprising since, even though this was the sixth group exhibition, the press still looked for innovation or shock, especially as some of its most famous members, such as Claude Monet and Renoir, had “deserted” their comrades for the Salon again.[21] For certain critics, Little Dancer did indeed exert a remarkable impact — on a general public that responded violently for or against, on its critical fans who hailed it as the best or only truly new effort of the exhibition (notably Ephrussi), and on its foes who found it so horrifying and ugly that it assured Degas a small role in the “history of the cruel arts.”[22] It eclipsed other works of sculpture exhibited that year for the few critics who wrote about them. De Mont, for instance, dismissed Paul Gauguin’s statuette Dame en promenade (1880, tinted wood, Kelton Foundation, Santa Monica, California) and medallion La Chanteuse (1880, wood and plaster, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen) as inconsequential and pretentious when compared to Degas’s controversial figure.[23]

The figure’s physical surroundings may have affected its reception. The rented space, a mezzanine apartment at the rear of a courtyard, included five small, low-ceilinged and badly lit rooms, with walls covered with “parti-coloured calicos and hung with many-coloured pictures” and seating scattered throughout.[24] The space was cramped and difficult; visitors reportedly crouched or knelt to examine works on the wall, intensifying the typical viewing experience of the nineteenth-century Parisian collector’s home, already cluttered by today’s standards.[25] Apparently installed together, like all exhibitors’ entries, Degas’s work was placed in a “cabinet entirely hung with yellow fabric.”[26] The “caged” Little Dancer stood “like a sentinel” (en vedette) in the center, surrounded by Degas’s roughly dozen works of varying format, scale, and material.[27] The sheer number and relatively small size of these pieces precluded any quick or exclusive linkage with those not immediately beside them. To associate the wax at the center with anything on the walls — notably the two pastel Criminal Physiognomies, as Claretie did — took time and effort.[28] Thus, any discussion that pairs the three filters out other work in the compact installation, making it less evident that Degas juxtaposed the sculpture and pastels as criminal theater; the two pastels were no closer to the wax than to the other prints and paintings, and formed parts of clusters.[29] The figure’s central placement also suggests that it inserted itself into the crowds, making those uncomfortable with its subject and realism doubly so through its scale and physical presence.[30] Yet in a separate, tiny, and dimly lit room with contrasting wall treatment (especially a solid, warm yellow) and encased in a reflective (and dust- and smudge-prone) vitrine, the mixed-media statuette might have seemed eerily unearthly.[31]

Subsequent Life of Little Dancer

Little Dancer resided in Degas’s studio for the rest of his life, reportedly in poor condition yet growing in reputation among those who saw her there.[32] Degas vacillated about parting with the figure when approached. In 1903, he allegedly offered the Havemeyers, who tried to buy it, a wax-coated cast instead, reportedly because he objected to its blackened condition, but then relented, planning to “repair” (réparer) the wax for its planned move to America, but that effort also failed.[33] After his death, the figure caused a “great sensation,” reported Mary Cassatt, when it reemerged to great effect (perhaps at Hébrard’s gallery?).[34] The heirs decided, after bitter debate, to sell serial bronzes of the figure as well as the famous “original.” They gradually raised the price to Mrs. Havemeyer, who pursued it again, from Degas’s of 40,000 francs to 1 million francs in 1920, which she refused and bought a bronze instead.[35] Hébrard’s repeated exhibition of the wax in the 1920s drew ever more public attention to the sculpture. In 1931, when the Louvre displayed a set of the bronzes it had just acquired, it claimed it was poised to receive the wax as well,[36] but the plan failed and the wax disappeared with the other lifetime works until 1955.

1. Fronia E. Wissman, "Realists among the Impressionists," in Charles S. Moffet, ed., The New Painting: Impressionism, 1874–1886, exh. cat. (San Francisco, 1986), 340.
2. Gustave Goetschy, "Indépendants et impressionistes," Le Voltaire, April 6, 1880.
3. Charles W. Millard, The Sculpture of Edgar Degas (Princeton,1976), 9. Among the first to note Goetschy’s evidence is Michael Pantazzi, "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer: Cat nos. 223–227," in Jean Sutherland Boggs et al., Degas, exh. cat. (New York and Ottawa, 1988), 350.
4. Richard Kendall, Degas and the Little Dancer, exh. cat. (New Haven and London, 1998), 34. Though hardly avant-garde, sculpture had been exhibited in earlier venues. In addition to Paul Gauguin’s modest marble head of his wife, Mette, shown in 1880 (Courtauld Gallery, London), the inaugural exhibition of 1874 had included ten entries by the eclectic sculptor Auguste-Louis Ottin in a range of traditional materials and subjects. Documented versions of Ottin’s entries date much earlier than 1881 (1847 – 1857). See Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Ottin dossier.
5. For the critics’ complaint about Degas being in a “rut,” see Douglas Druick, "Framing The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen," in Kendall, Degas and the Little Dancer, 77 – 78.
6. This point is most extensively discussed in Douglas W. Druick and Peter Zegers, "Scientific Realism: 1873–1881," in Boggs et al., Degas, especially 199 – 202.
7. Millard, Sculpture of Edgar Degas, 8, based on Thiébault-Sisson’s (1918) contention that Degas worked on the piece for many years.
8. Kahane, in Martine Kahane et al., "Enquête sur la Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans de Degas," 48/14: La Revue du Musée d'Orsay, no. 7 (Autumn 1998): 51.
9. This point is noted by Britta Martensen-Larsen, "Degas' The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer: An Element of Japonisme," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, ser. 6, vol. 112, no. 1435 (September 1988): 111.
10. Lillian Browse, Degas Dancers (Boston, 1949), cats. 66 – 69, repro.
11. Pantazzi, "Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer," 343, speculates that Degas might have held it back to alter the mouth, when Renoir reported criticism of its being too summary, but such changes
to the original material are difficult to detect.
12. For published sources that illustrate the group, see George T. M. Shackelford, Degas: The Dancers, exh. cat. (Washington, DC, 1984); Pantazzi, "Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer"; Theodore Reff, Degas: The Artist's Mind (New York, 1976); Kendall, Degas and the Little Dancer.
13. Ronald Pickvance, Degas 1879, exh. cat. (Edinburgh, 1979), 64 – 67; Pantazzi, "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer," 349 – 350. No authorities contend that the drawings are of the sculpture. Browse, Degas: Dancers, cat. 92, and Pantazzi, "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer," 349, follow John Rewald, Degas, Works in Sculpture: A Complete Catalogue, trans. John Coleman and Noel Moulton (New York, 1944), 6, in proposing that a group of drawings of a slightly different pose might represent a first idea for the sculpture. A similar figure instead adjusts the left shoulder strap while turning her head to the left, one of Degas’s most often-repeated motifs that does appear in a smaller wax.
14. Kendall, Degas and the Little Dancer, 35 – 36.
15. Shackelford, Degas: The Dancers, 70 – 76, especially 75 – 76.
16. Pantazzi, "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer," 349, instead argues that this is a rare project by Degas that follows a linear sequence.
17. Another example of the variety is Kendall, Degas and the Little Dancer, pl. 41.
18. The Nasjonalmuseet drawing (see cat. 17, fig. 5) shows the various positions of the feet that broadly echo the differences not only between those of the dressed and nude sculpture but between the first position of the nude’s right foot and its final state.
19. Martensen-Larsen, "Degas' The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer," 111, even argues that both the dressed and the nude variants were modeled from life and that the “preliminary” drawings played only a “secondary” role in completing them.
20. The exhibition ran from April 2 to May 1; the wax was reported as finally in place in a review (Louis Enault, "Chronique," Moniteur des arts, 1881) published on April 15.
21. Wissman, "Realists among the Impressionists," 337.
22. Bertall, "Exposition: Des Peintres intransigeants et nihilistes: 36, boulevard des Capucines," Paris-Journal, April 21, 1881, 1; Comtesse Louise, "Lettres familières sur l'art: Salon de 1881," La France nouvelle, May 1–2, 1881, 3; Charles Ephrussi, "Exposition des artistes indépendants," La Chronique des Arts et de la Curiosité, April 16, 1881, 126; Joris-Karl Huysmans, "L'Exposition des indépendants en 1881," L'Art Moderne (Paris, 1883), 226 – 227; Paul Mantz, "Exposition des oeuvres des artistes indépendants," Le Temps, April 23, 1881; Henry Trianon, "Sixième Exposition de peinture par un groupe d'artistes: 35, boulevard des Capucines," Le Constitutionnel, April 24, 1881; Nina de Villars, "Variétés: Exposition des artistes indépendants," Le Courrier du Soir, April 23, 1881, 2.
23. Élie de Mont, "L'Exposition du boulevard des Capucines," La Civilisation, April 21, 1881.
24. The apartment was in the same building complex as the first impressionist exhibition, but across the courtyard. A summary of most details is in Wissman, "Realists among the Impressionists," 337. The description of the walls is in Our Lady Correspondent, unsigned and untitled review, Artist 2 (May 1, 1881).
25. Jules Claretie, "La Vie à Paris: Les Artistes indépendants," in La Vie à Paris: 1881 (Paris, 1881). For example, Henri Rouart’s salon de réception in the Paris house typified the ambitious collector’s dense arrangement in Degas’s time. Anne Distel, "Henri Rouart, Collectionneur," in Au Coeur de l'impressionnisme: La Famille Rouart, exh. cat. (Paris, 2004), 42 – 43, repro.
26. Gustave Goetschy, "Exposition des artistes indépendants," Le Voltaire, April 5, 1881: “M. Degas a choisi pour y exposer ses oeuvres un cabinet tout tendu de jaune.”
27. Bertall, "Exposition."
28. Claretie, "La Vie à Paris," 151.
29. Arguments for their juxtaposition as deliberate criminal theater are found in Anthea Callen, The Spectacular Body: Science, Method, and Meaning in the Work of Degas (New Haven and London, 1995), 27; June Hargrove, "Painter-Sculptors and Polychromy in the Evolution of Modernism," in Andreas Blühm et al., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840–1910, exh. cat. (Amsterdam, 1996), 105; Druick, "Framing The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen," 92.
30. Ibid., 91.
31. The wax’s formal subtleties may have been lost to the dim lighting and vitrine, especially affecting visibility of the head, with its nuanced transition from wax to real hair described above.
32. Pantazzi, "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer," 343 – 346, 350 – 353; Anne Pingeot, Degas: Sculptures (Paris, 1991), cat. 73. Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent information is from these sources.
33. Paul-Albert Bartholomé to Paul Lafond, c. 1903, in Denys Sutton and Jean Adhémar, eds., "Lettres inédites de Degas à Paul Lafond et autres documents," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, ser. 6, vol. 109, no. 1419 (April 1987): 176.
34. Mary Cassatt to Louisine Havemeyer, June 25, 1918, in Pantazzi, "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer," 351.
35. Mary Cassatt to Louisine Havemeyer, April 18, 1920, microfilm 56, NGA Library, original in Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives, New York. Cassatt claims Mrs. Havemeyer felt a work that she no longer liked and could not exhibit was not worth the price. Cassatt to [Joseph?] Durand-Ruel, January 20, 1920, Lionello Venturi, Les Archives de l'impressionnisme, 2 vols. (Paris, 1939), 2:138.
36. Paul Jamot, "Préface," in Degas: Portraitiste, sculpteur, exh. cat. (Paris, 1931), 13: “D’autre part, une négociation à laquelle cette même famille [Fevre] n’a pas été étrangère va faire entrer au Louvre tout l’oeuvre sculpté de Degas, soit la Grande Danseuse en cire et soixante-douze bronzes.”

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