As Kendall has noted, Degas’s statuette of an adolescent dancer offers an astringently new approach to the familiar subject of youth in nineteenth-century sculpture, which typically explores childhood naïveté (notably François Rude, Neapolitan Fisherboy, 1831 / 1833, marble, Musée du Louvre, Paris) or the mercurial child-adult qualities of adolescence. Closer to Little Dancer are the many works that provide moral studies of teenage girls, as critics thought Little Dancer did, paying homage to France’s cherished teenage warrior Joan of Arc and to literary heroines such as the gypsy Esmeralda in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (Notre Dame de Paris, 1831). Because sexuality plays a darkly powerful role in these stories, such images provide an especially problematic dimension to the growing debate about human potential, from traditional divine will, immutable gender or racial features, and untainted natural virtue, to new theories of heredity and environment. The iconography of typical modern girls, especially urban types, is unusually open to such readings. Like British moralizing genre painting of modern bourgeois girls, French genre painting of their working-class counterparts includes commentaries on their penchant for waywardness — or works that were perceived as tracing their immoral course. An example that is especially close to Little Dancer involves three of Auguste Renoir’s entries in the 1874 impressionist exhibition, Dancer (fig. 1), the Parisienne (1874, oil on canvas, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff), and La Loge (1874, oil on canvas, Courtauld Gallery, London), paintings that one critic described at the time as possible images of the “three stages that the young women of Paris often go through,” from teenager to prostitute.
Such comments about Renoir’s images of young women are similar to many published about Little Dancer in 1881, providing the basis for debates about the figure’s meaning today. Degas’s specification of a fourteen-year-old dancer carried especially wide-ranging portents for the future. On the brink of sexual maturity, fourteen was the age at which a French girl of those years traditionally received her First Communion, emulating the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation and Incarnation. Age fourteen also signaled the student dancer’s transition to professionalism from her childhood as a rat, begun when she was admitted to the Opéra as a student around the age of eight. At fourteen she was either competing for, or possibly already performing in, the second quadrille, the lowest level of the ballerina’s professional ladder to grand sujet or even étoile.
For Shackelford, Little Dancer was perhaps Degas’s most ambitious tribute to the ballet student’s dedication and struggle in pursuing an exacting craft, qualities that the artist admired in life and widely recorded in his two-dimensional work. For later writers, the figure opened a Pandora’s Box of attitudes surrounding the rat. Often of modest birth, the student or emerging dancer embodied the many vices and criminal tendencies long attached to the lowest classes and theater world; her often lackluster talent relegated her to walk-on or minor dance roles that paid so poorly that she embarked on age-old alternatives, notably paid sex, turning to wealthy male subscribers of the Opéra who pursued younger dancers, often through the girls’ mothers. Rather than the charming gamine or even a sexual victim, the rat was seen by many contemporaries as a calculating sexual predator.