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Technical Notes: Overview

Unique in Degas’s sculptural repertoire, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is distinguished by its scale, complexity, and range of materials. Furthermore, as the only sculpture exhibited in Degas’s lifetime, Little Dancer raises questions unlike those considered for other works. For example, was her fabrication complex and fastidious because she was always intended for exhibition? Or was it simply because she was so meticulously created that Degas was content to exhibit her? That he originally exhibited an empty case implies the answer is not straightforward (see Lindsay in the entry text below). Nonetheless, although the sculpture is different from others by Degas, it is not entirely alien to his corpus.

Three Studies of a Dancer in Fourth Position

Fig. 1: 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

Study in the Nude of Little Dancer has generally been considered a preliminary attempt at sculpting the youthful dancer in three dimensions even though its relationship to Little Dancer is more complex. Similarly, drawings and sketches for both Little Dancer and Study in the Nude exist (figs. 1, 2).[1] While there is neither an established relationship between the dates of the drawings nor a precise understanding of their role in the creation of the sculpture, Degas was clearly attempting to render multiple viewpoints in a two-dimensional format.[2] In the charcoal drawing Three Studies of a Nude Dancer (see fig. 2), a small outline in the upper right corner appears to be a sketch for an armature and is particularly relevant to the fabrication of Little Dancer.[3]

Three Studies of a Nude Dancer

Fig 2: Degas, Three Studies of a Nude Dancer, c. 1878, charcoal heightened with white chalk on gray wove paper. Private collection. Photo: Bridgeman Images

1. For illustrations of studies for Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, refer to George T. M. Shackelford, Degas: The Dancers (Washington, DC, 1984), 66 – 80; 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), 351; Theodore Reff, Degas: The Artist's Mind (New York, 1976), 244, notes that Degas drew her at least sixteen times. See also Richard Kendall, Degas and the Little Dancer, exh. cat. (New Haven and London, 1998), 37 – 40.
2. Shackelford, Degas: The Dancers, 75, proposes that the drawings served as an aide-mémoire.
3. Kendall, Degas and the Little Dancer, 37, notes the same sketch.

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