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Iconographic Interpretations

The sexual image of the rat still pervaded the collective imagination at the time Little Dancer was exhibited in 1881 — most significantly, within Degas’s own circle. As is often mentioned, beginning in 1880, his friend Ludovic Halévy published novels about a fictitious family that featured a mother, Mme Cardinal, who prostituted her two young daughters, both dance students at the Opéra, giving her name to the archetypal semicomical modern dancer’s mother-hustler; Degas’s drawings of the subject, rejected as illustrations for the books, remain important evidence of his interpretation of the story.[1] Similarly, Degas’s many images of dancers, onstage and off, often include images of the subscriber, a potential if not actual protector.[2] An especially close analogy to Degas’s Little Dancer appeared in an anonymous column published in a popular journal, L’Illustration, only months after the wax was exhibited; it singles out the pubescent rat for a mordant tribute to her self-discipline and self-interest. Illustrated as well as described in the text, a robust machinist sleeping backstage, exhausted by physical exertion, is compared to his “antithesis,” a gawky, wiry rat who stands over him, unbroken by her own grueling labor and sleepless nights. The columnist remarks: “It is right that [the rats] are built of steel, those frail ambitious little girls, avid of luxury, nut-eaters who become apple-eaters [Eve?]; forged for the fight, they pass through life, shrugging their shoulders and saying . . . about their lovers as this one does about the sleeping worker, ‘Men? Come on! They have no strength!’ ”[3] Instead of aiming for stardom, this daunting fictional rat is driven only by material greed at men’s expense, and has the “steel” to pursue it — a dark image of the present and future of the Opéra dancer.

Callen and Druick (initially with Zegers) inserted Degas’s Little Dancer into precisely that framework, proposing that the figure embodies this youthful dancer as criminal Other, born into the sinister underclass that Paris’s elite males entered for their lowest pleasures.[4] Linked with two of Degas’s pastels exhibited also in 1881, Criminal Physiognomies (1880 / 1881, private collection and National Museum / Narodni Musej, Belgrade), which some critics then identified with recent murder trials for some lower-class youths, Little Dancer becomes another criminal portrait shaped, and to be interpreted, by the same physiognomic principles.

Yet Degas’s Little Dancer is remarkably open to different readings. For many critics of 1881, this is a class portrait, the street urchin-turned-rat whose training further distorted her undernourished build. Ephrussi, who admires Degas’s figure immensely, points to her convulsed, scrawny physique, a torso that is both bony and supple as steel, and frighteningly ugly features, with its vulgarly upturned nose and projecting mouth.[5] Her thinness, for some a sign of her youth, class, and brutal training, speaks to others instead of premature old age from corruption.[6] Mantz provides the most comprehensive physiognomic criminal account. This adolescent’s immorality appears in her thin arms, with blotched skin that is “truly horrible to see” and the telltale mindless head whose ugly face, “or more appropriately, her little muzzle” projects forward, “with bestial effrontery,” a face “where all the vices imprint their detestable promise.”[7] By contrast, de Villars notes delicate features and ankles that instead promise imminent beauty.[8] The telltale signs and overt physiognomic language of criminality that Degas used for his Criminal Physiognomies are less in evidence in these narratives about Little Dancer, yet some critics infer atavistic immorality.

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

Though Callen and Druick’s arguments for Little Dancer are rarely questioned,[9] there is room for greater nuance. Consider the prescribed physiognomic features of the criminal type. Ephrussi and Mantz mention the dancer’s forehead, which they see as hidden under her long bangs.[10] If that handling signals camouflaged absence rather than veiled presence, modern scholars are justified in examining the forehead for relative recessiveness, one of the “animal” or “primitive” signs widely associated with the lower criminal classes. Otherwise, the dancer lacks the standard atavistic signs that most scholars list as telling evidence of her primitivism. Rather than the criminal’s coarse black hair, jutting heavy jaw, and thick lips, Little Dancer, as de Villars observes, has delicate features (especially the mouth) and fine, supple hair, whether the brownish wax or the dark blond braid.[11] Significantly, the drawing used to prove the physiognomic intent of the figure, showing possible alterations in life studies (see fig. 1), includes more and clearer “criminal” features: in addition to the simian recessive forehead and projecting jaw in the profile view at lower right, the frontal study in the upper right shows the nose and mouth thickened and bangs intensified to bold black.[12] Degas apparently chose against such physiognomic signs in the finished figure, though (as Sturman and Barbour suggest in the Technical Notes above) they may appear in its core, perhaps an earlier state of the sculpture. Critics who saw the beast in Little Dancer in 1881 may have responded to the less dogmatic cues in the popular literature on the rat, the dirty, bony body and modern Parisian gamine’s piquant face, which also color views of Renoir’s Dancer (see fig. 2).

The Dancer

Fig. 2: Auguste Renoir, The Dancer, 1874, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection, 1942.9.72

For Callen, the bourgeois spectator saw Degas’s Little Dancer as his own moral “antithesis,” for a “cathartic effect” like terror before the sublime, in order to reinforce the ideological controls for his class.[13] Hargrove sees Degas’s critique of his male peers who pursue dancers for sex: Little Dancer, she proposes, parodies a venerated devotional type, yielding an effigy of a “Madonna of Vice” to “tweak” men for contributing to France’s presently compromised morality.[14] For Druick, Degas inserted Little Dancer especially into the debates about the effect of heredity and environment on France’s social malaise by 1870.[15] In this context, Druick links the wax to Degas’s Criminal Physiognomies with a new ambiguity, proposing that the documented lives or faces of the criminals fit neither criterion (heredity or environment), so Degas altered their portraits in his pastel physiognomies to suit scientific theories, yet left any cues about their fate unclear. Degas, Druick argues, portrayed his own ambivalence, as an engaged citizen whose views about heredity and environment were shaped by his class. Druick feels that the artist left the dancer’s future even more open, so that it could include improvement brought about by education and social reform.[16] Thus, the pastels of the teenage criminals could represent the fourteen-year-old girl’s peers, if she kept true to type, or her antithesis, if she moved above her inherited world.

A contemporary literary example seems especially relevant here, Émile Zola’s naturalist two-part saga L’ Assommoir (1877) and Nana (1880), texts that critics frequently invoked in discussions of Degas’s entries of 1881 and that explore the unstable interplay of heredity, environment, and circumstance. In the first of several “threshold” moments, at the beginning of L’ Assommoir, the young, beautiful Gervaise considers her prospects: “Her dream was to live amongst good people because bad society, said she, was like the blow of a bludgeon [assommoir]  — it cracked one’s skull, it would lay a woman on her back in no time. She fell into a cold sweat at the thought of the future, and compared herself to a coin tossed up in the air and coming down head or tail, according to how it struck the ground.”[17] Against her grim assessment of the two possible paths determined by chance, Gervaise’s eventual downfall seems less predetermined than a bad toss of the coin.

Druick’s argument that Degas leaves the dancer’s fate unclear, for whatever reason, accords well with the range of critical views of the girl’s lineage, current influences, and prospects. Ephrussi sees her as genetically predetermined; the Comtesse Louise perceives a teenage Nana, Gervaise’s daughter who becomes a courtesan.[18] Mantz condemns, among other things, a corrupt environment: for him, Little Dancer unmasks the Opéra’s moral threat even to respectable girls who may fall prey to its influence.[19] De Villars, however, sees only untainted promise. For her, Little Dancer is an Ugly Duckling, awkward with adolescence and deformed by her training, who would eventually dance gracefully and enjoy the “royal” beauty promised by her features.[20] For its first viewers, then, this controversial sculpture of a modern adolescent social type may not have suggested any single future, indicative of both the figure’s ambiguous rendering and the splintered views of its public.

If Degas meant to direct Little Dancer’s reading by framing it with related subjects (his pastel Criminal Physiognomies in 1880 / 1881 and, for its projected 1880 venue, the reworked Young Spartan Girls Provoking the Boys, 1860, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London, apparently not exhibited), then more questions emerge from Degas’s additional entries in 1881 that present other modern urban female types: a dancer embracing a subscriber in the coulisses, a laundress, cabaret singers, and portraits, the most often commented upon among them a decorative frieze of fashionable women.[21] Such a survey of modern Parisians raises new possibilities about heredity, environment, and chance to consider with the Criminal Physiognomies and Little Dancer, especially with their equal prominence in the exhibition. This fledgling dancer — whether socially base, temporarily awkward, or devoted to her career — might become one of the fashionable as well as the backstage siren.

Complicating the picture, Degas’s sonnet “Petite danseuse,” thought to have been written c. 1889, after he exhibited Little Dancer, pleas for her professional success with a startling condition:

If Montmartre provided her spirit and her forebears
Roxelane[22] [provided] her nose and China her eyes,
In turn, Ariel, give this recruit [to the dance]

Your light steps for daytime, your light steps for night . . .
But for my known taste! may she be aware of her special qualities
and preserve her street breeding at the golden palace [the Opéra].[23]

Degas expects a glorious professional future for this young and talented girl but fears it might strip her of qualities that he cherishes in Paris’ exotic, rather than loathsome, street society. Does this sonnet explain his sculpture or at least convey a similar view?

Signaling a changed mentality in later years, after Degas’s death critics find that Little Dancer’s modernity plays powerfully against its hint of ancient Sphinx-like enigma. According to Degas’s critic friend François Fosca, this effect is precisely what Charles-Pierre Baudelaire sought in modern art, lending a new dimension to the debate.[24]

1. See, for instance, Michael Pantazzi, “Degas, Halévy, and the Cardinals,” in Jean Sutherland Boggs et al., Degas, exh. cat. (Washington, DC, 1988), 280 – 284; Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall, Degas and the Dance, exh. cat. (New York, 2002), 64 – 65.
2. For a recent discussion and examples, see ibid., 64 – 79, 120.
3. L’Illustration 1881: “Elles ont raison d’être construites en acier ces frêles petites filles ambitieuses, avides de luxe, croqueuses de noisettes qui deviennent des croqueuses de pommes; et forgées pour la lutte, elles passent à travers la vie, haussant les épaules et se disant comme les fillettes de Gavarni, devant ceux qui les aiment comme devant le machiniste endormi: ‘Les hommes? Allons donc! Ils ne sont [sic] pas de force!’ ”
4. Anthea Callen, most recently in The Spectacular Body: Science, Method, and Meaning in the Work of Degas (New Haven and London, 1995), 21 – 29; Douglas W. Druick and Peter Zegers, “Scientific Realism: 1873–1881,” in Boggs et al., Degas, 207 – 211; Douglas W. Druick, “La Petite danseuse et les criminels: Degas moraliste?” in Degas inédit: Actes du Colloque Degas, Musée d’Orsay 18–21 avril 1988 (Paris, 1989); idem, “Framing The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” in Richard Kendall, Degas and the Little Dancer, exh. cat. (New Haven and London, 1998).
5. Charles Ephrussi, “Exposition des artiste indépendants,” La Chronique des Arts et de la Curiosité, April 16, 1881, 126.
6. Élie de Mont, “L’Exposition du boulevard des Capucines,” La Civilisation, April 21, 1881, 2; Joris-Karl Huysmans, “L’Exposition des indépendants en 1881,” L’Art Moderne (Paris, 1883), 227.
7. Paul Mantz, “Exposition des oeuvres des artistes indépendants,” Le Temps, April 23, 1881, 3: “Les maculatures, les taches, les scories que M. Degas a inscrites sur les chairs [of the arms] de cette infortunée son vraiment horribles à voir”; as to her face, “Redoutable, parce qu’elle est sans pensée, elle avance, avec une bestiale effronterie, son visage ou plutôt son petit museau . . . [has] l’in-structive laideur d’un visage où tous les vices impriment leur détestables promesses.”
8. Nina de Villars, “Variétés: Exposition des artistes indépendants,” Le Courrier du Soir, April 23, 1881, 2.
9. An exception is Catherine Schaller, “Edgar Degas et la physiognomonie,” Annales d’histoire de l’art et d’archéologie 21 (1999): 103 – 111.
10. Ephrussi, “Exposition,” 126; Mantz, “Exposition des oeuvres.”
11. de Villars, “Variétes.” To provide the coarse black hair specified by certain physiognomists, Callen, Spectacular Body, 26, invokes Louisine Havemeyer’s recollection of the dark hair seeming “woolly” (Havemeyer, Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector, ed. Susan Alyson Stein [New York, 1993], 255), a sign for the latter of the figure’s dusty and decrepit state after decades of neglect.
12. Callen, Spectacular Body, 22 – 25, presents the atavistic reading of the drawing that Kendall (Degas and the Little Dancer, 38) dismisses as overinterpretation of standard artistic license.
13. Callen, Spectacular Body, 28.
14. June Hargrove, “Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer: Madonna of the Third Republic?” in Horizons: Essays on Art and Art Research, ed. Hans-Jörg Heusser (Zurich, 2001), 156.
15. Druick, “Framing The Little Dancer,” 88.
16. Ibid., 89, 93.
17. Émile Zola, The “Assommoir” (The Prelude to “Nana”) (London, 1885), 49.
18. Ephrussi, “Exposition,” 126; Comtesse Louise, “Lettres familières sur l’art: Salon de 1881,” La France nouvelle, May 1–2, 1881, 3.
19. Mantz, “Exposition des oeuvres.” The prospect of environmental corruption appears in his witty and often-quoted anecdote about a fictitious bourgeois father’s horror before the wax: “Fasse le ciel que ma fille ne devienne pas une sauteuse [dancer / prostitute].” The term sauteuse in the original article is occasionally given erroneously as danseuse. Charles W. Millard, the Sculpture of Edgar Degas (Princeton, 1976), 122.
20. de Villars, “Variétes.”
21. For a list of these works (most of which were not cited in the catalogue, were only briefly described by the critics, and remain unidentified), see Ruth Berson, The New Painting: Impressionism, 1874–1886—Documentation, 2 vols. (Seattle, 1996), 2:180. Some, significantly, were also tardy entries, like Little Dancer.
22. Roxelane was the celebrated, beautiful Russian concubine of Süleyman the Magnificent, who made her his consort Hurrem.
23. Paul-André Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, 4 vols. (Paris, 1946 – 1949), 1: n.p.:
     Si Montmartre a donné l’esprit et les aïeux
     Roxelane le nez et la Chine les yeux,
     À ton tour, Ariel, donne à cette recrue
     Tes pas légers de jour, tes pas légers de nuit . . .
     Mais, pour mon goût connu! qu’elle sente son fruit
     Et garde au palais d’or la race de sa rue.
The last two lines, particularly the phrase “qu’elle sente son fruit,” have been variously interpreted. Catherine Lafarge, Professor Emerita of French, Bryn Mawr College (personal communication to SGL, 2005), emphasizes the sexual and procreative associations surrounding smell and [maturing] fruit and argues the phrase identifies emerging womanhood as well as social roots. One of seven known sonnets by Degas, “Petite danseuse” was repeatedly reworked without changing the core message presented here.
24. François Fosca, “L’Actualité: Degas, sculpteur,” L’Art et les Artistes (June 1921): 374.

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