The model for this sculpture was Marie van Goethem, a fourteen-year-old ballet student at the Opéra in Paris. Edgar Degas was charmed by these young dancers, who were known as petits rats. Between 1880 and 1883, he was often to be found sketching them in class.
Degas made three-dimensional works as well as sketches and paintings. He fashioned scores of small wax figures, the first dating from 1870. Before making the mould for Marie, he worked out the pose by sketching her from several vantage points. She stands with her right foot extended at an angle and her chest thrust slightly forward, giving the body a certain tension. The wax figures served primarily as studies and were in principle not intended for exhibition. However, Degas made an exception in this case and presented the study of Marie at the Impressionist exhibition of 1881. The public were shocked by its realism and the critics were scathing. The figure was dismissed as resembling a ‘monkey’ and, worse still, ‘a monster from a zoological museum’. more information
Degas considered many of his sculptures as simply study material for his paintings and not as final works. The art-dealer Durand-Ruel found more than eighty wax and clay models in Degas' studio after the artist died. The works were in a poor condition. Durand-Ruel made a selection and finally had 72 sculptures cast in bronze by Adrien A. Hébrard. Twenty-five copies of the sculpture of the dancer were also produced. The main difference with the original wax version is that the hair, the shoes and the blouse are cast in bronze. The hair ribbon and the skirt are still executed in fabric. One of Degas' nieces was responsible for choosing the clothing for the bronze versions. Later these versions were restored and museums themselves made choices about the fabric and the shape of the skirt and hair ribbon. The current ribbon and skirt of the dancer in the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen were last replaced in 1990.