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Fourteen-Year Old Dancer

Edgar Degas, 1881

Degas created the original sculpture with beeswax. From this two plaster casts were made. One is at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, NE, the other is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., along with the original beeswax version.

 

Suzanne Glover Lindsay describes the unusual circumstances surrounding the exhibition of Fourteen-Year Old Dancer and the model’s tragic story:

 “Degas provided the Little Dancer with a vitrine, now apparently lost, for display in two of the impressionist exhibitions, first in 1880, when the case was set up but the figure remained absent, and then in 1881, when the case was installed at the opening of the exhibition and the figure appeared two weeks later. Various critics made much of the vitrine. For some, it served as Little Dancer’s surrogate, standing empty in the galleries until she arrived. Once the sculpture was placed inside, certain opponents dubbed the vase a ‘glass cage’ (cage de verre) that reassuringly quarantined a dangerous child-beast or medical specimen….[T]he case reinforced the figure’s reading as a scientific display rather than as art, since…small sculpture was not vitrined at the Paris Salon. Small and especially fragile modern sculpture, like Little Dancer, however, appeared in cases in other exhibitions of contemporary art at the turn of the century. Rather than clarify the sculpture’s content and relationship with the viewer, as a vitrine traditionally intended, Degas’s glass cage contributed to the figure’s volatile meaning.”

 “Marie [van Goethem] was born to a Belgian working-class couple in Paris on June 7, 1865…Marie and her younger sister Louis Joséphine…were admitted to the Opéra dance academy as students in 1878. Their father, a tailor, reportedly died by 1880…Marie had only a brief and mediocre career, dancing in La Korrigane in 1880 and in Namouna in 1882. The family’s increasingly modest quarters suggest a downward spiral, and, according to gossipmongers, Mme Van Goethem began to hire out the girls for sex….in 1882, the Opéra registers record Marie’s removal for nonattendance at the same time the press reports her at the cafés – similarly the last documented sign of her thus far, at age seventeen.”

 Suzanne Glover Lindsay,”Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” in Lindsay, Daphne S. Barbour, and Shelley G. Sturman, eds, Edgar Degas Sculpture (Washington:D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2010), pp. 126-7.

 

British writer George Moore (1852-1933) described a visit to Degas’s studio:

“In perennial gloom and dust the vast canvases of his youth are piled up in formidable barricades. Great wheels belonging to lithographic presses – lithography was for a time one of Degas’ avocations – suggests a printing-office. There is much decaying sculpture – dancing-girls modelled in red wax, some dressed in muslin skirts, strange dolls – dolls if you will, but dolls modelled by a man of genius.”

Reprinted in George Moore, “Memories of Degas,” The Burlington Magazine for Conoisseurs, vol. 32, no. 178 (January 1918): 21.

 

In a 1903 letter from Mary Cassatt to art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, she reported:

“I have just received a letter from Mrs. Havemeyer about the statue [Fourteen-Year Old Dancer]. She will have nothing but the original, and she tells me that Degas, on the pretext that the wax has blackened, wants to do it all over in bronze or plaster with wax on the surface.”

The letter is translated and reprinted in Nancy M. Mathews, ed., Cassatt and Her Circle (New York: Abbeville, 1984), pp. 287-8.

 

Daphne Barbour notes:

 “Edgar Degas both launched and concluded his career as a public sculptor with only one sculpture and one exhibition, Little Dancer Fourteen Years Old in the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition, 1881. Yet in its time Little Dancer transcended the boundaries of sculpture and caused contemporary Paris to react with strong but varied responses. Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote, ‘The fact is that with one blow, M. Degas has overthrown the traditions of sculpture, just as he long since shook the conventions of painting,’ while Paul Mantz commented upon ‘the instinctive ugliness of a face upon which all vices imprint their detestable promises.’ Despite this one sculpture exhibition, Degas worked in wax and clay from as early as 1865.”

Daphne Barbour, “Degas’s Little Dancer: Not Just a Study in the Nude,” Art Journal, vol. 54, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 28.

 

Richard Thomson notes:

“We do not know what was Degas’s purpose in executing the Little Dancer. But a pattern appears when one takes into account other instances around 1880 when Degas drew the same figure several times ‘in the round’, such as three sheets of café-concert singers or two of a woman putting on her corset, as well as the small contemporaneous statuette of the Schoolgirl, studied from several points of view in notebook drawings. All of these, in whatever medium, are images of Parisiennes [women natives to Paris], co-ordinating pose, gesture and physiognomy into the representation of the characteristic type: in the case of the Little Dancer, the gauche grace and pubescent cockiness of the ballet girl. Studying both sculpture and facial expression from multiple viewpoints was a throwback to his earliest practice, as was his return to drawing from life. In all probability the Little Dancer ws the only fully resolved example of a series of projected sculptures, a scheme aborted because making sculpture was too slow a process given the high standard of naturalism Degas had set himself.”

Richard Thomson, The Private Degas. Exhibition catalogue (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1987), pp. 85-6.

 

Charles Millard considers Degas’s Fourteen-Year Old Dancer in a broader art historical context:

“While the Little Dancer itself is not directly related iconographically to Classical sculpture, it raises issues that were of great concern to academic and neoclassical theorists in the nineteenth century. It is as if Degas, rather than copying a Classical model, wanted to embody several important Classical principles in contemporary terms. The first of these has to do with proportion, always a preoccupation of academic teaching, for which the Classical canons were constantly being extrapolated from works of Greek sculpture. For Degas, correct proportion meant not simply faithfulness to the model…but a more orthodox concern for relationships in size among various parts of the body….[T]here is a study for one of the relief sculptures on which Degas has noted how many heads go to make up the length of one side of the body and how many fit between the waist and the foot of the other side….

By far the most important of the academic concerns reflected in the Little Dancer, however, is that of polychromy….From the moment the importance of colored sculpture wsa asserted at the beginning of the century until its great popularity during the 1880s and 1890s, polychromy was the prerogative of the Salons. The first and greatest nineteenth-century statement of a sculptural esthetic based on the use of paint and different colored materials was Quartremère de Quincy’s Jupiter olympien, published early in the century soon after archaeological findings confirmed that Greek sculpture was originally painted or constructed from various materials….While the Jupiter olympien was clearly the first theoretical step  toward the classical figures in silver and gold, mixed highly-colored marbles, and mixed metal and stone that peopled the Salons of the nineteenth century…it also stimulated a number of more modest efforts in painted plaster and colored wax.”

Charles W. Millard, The Sculptures of Edgar Degas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), pp. 60-2.

 

Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall discuss Degas’s Fourteen-Year Old Dancer in the context of ballet:

“Now more widely known through its plaster and bronze variants, the statuette has been variously linked to nineteenth-century theories of physiognomy and attitudes toward youthful crime and vice; to ancient Egyptian and Gothic precedents; and to contemporary debates concerning the use of color in sculpture and the nature of realism. One rather more direct approach to interpreting this work – through the ballet of the period – has been curiously neglected.”

“The first insight into Degas’s wax sculpture to emerge from this relatively unexplored background concerns the young dancer’s implicit context. Underlying the rhetoric of the critics in 1881 was an apparent horror of her informality: the casual attitude and clothes of the depicted figure seemed out of place in an art gallery and – more specifically – at odds with the still vivid romantic vision of the ballet. Then as now, the stereotype of the classical dancer was a figure caught in mid-performance, dressed in a splendid costume and glamorously groomed, and displaying the gravity-defying poise that distinguishes her profession. …In the Little Dancer, by contrast, Degas presented an awkward adolescent dressed in the plainest of practice attire, who – as we shall see – was neither on stage nor conscious of being in the public eye….Even those modestly familiar with the conventions of ballet will perceive that this youngster is not dancing under the footlights…but resting in a classroom or other backstage space. An initial clue is her stance, which is only broadly related to one of ballet’s five primary positions [fourth] and would have been unacceptable in any formal context, whether an exercise in class or a variation in a performance.”

“[A]pplicants to the Opera’s dance conservatory were examined by the institution’s doctors and teaching staff to ensure that they were sufficiently strong to endure the rigors of classical training and to determine whether their bodies conformed to its expectations….the evidence of Degas’s drawings suggests that Marie would have…stood out before the selection panel, recommended by her developed turn-out…Her ankles, too, appear remarkably flexible, enabling her to achieve a fluid line in actions involving leg extensions…”

“Marie van Goethem…enrolled at the dance conservatory in 1878 at the age of twelve – much older than most students…and within two years was promoted to the corps de ballet….Her physical attributes would have given her an immediate advantage, providing a highly suitable frame on which to develop the skills and muscular strength demanded of a Paris Opera performer….”

Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall, “The Class of 1881: Degas, Drawing, and the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” Master Drawings, vol. 41, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 152, 153, 159, 160.

 

Related works

Little Dancer Fourteen Years Old, 1878-81. Wax, linen bodice covered with wax, muslin
  tutu, blue satin ribbons (Paul Mellon collection, Upperville, VA). This is the ‘original.’

Study in the Nude for the Dressed Ballet Dancer (Nude Dancer), n.d. Red beeswax, plaster
  base (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

Three Studies of a Dancer (Marie van Goethem) in Fourth Position, 1870s (Art Institute of
  Chicago)

Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, post-1921 cast (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) 

About the Artist

Born: Paris, 19 July 1834
Died: Paris, 27 September 1917
Nationality: French