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. Its title then was precisely the same as the following year, and the critic Gustave Goetschy relayed the rumor of its elaborate appearance. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.” 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) 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. 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.
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.”