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Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

Edgar Degas1878 - 1881

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

At the sixth impressionist exhibition in the spring of 1881, Edgar Degas presented the only sculpture that he would ever exhibit in public. The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, the title given by the artist, has become one of the most beloved works of art, well known through the many bronze casts produced from this unique original statuette, following the artist's death.

The sculpture was not so warmly received when she first appeared. The critics protested almost unanimously that she was ugly, but had to acknowledge the work's astonishing realism as well as its revolutionary nature. The mixed media of the Little Dancer, basically a wax statuette dressed in real clothes, was very innovative, most of all because she was considered a modern subject—a student dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet. Marie van Goethem, the model for the figure, was the daughter of a Belgian tailor and a laundress; her working–class background was typical of the Paris Opera school's ballerinas. These dancers were known as "petits rats de l'opéra," literally opera rats, presumably because of their scurrying around the opera stage in tiny, fast–moving steps. But the derogatory association of the name with dirt and poverty was also intentional. Young, pretty, and poor, the ballet students also were potential targets of male "protectors." Degas understood the predicament of the Little Dancer—what the contemporary reviewer Joris–Karl Huysmans called her "terrible reality." The Little Dancer is a very poignant, deeply felt work of art in which a little girl of fourteen, in spite of the difficult position in which she is placed, both physically and psychologically, struggles for a measure of dignity: her head is held high, though her arms and hands are uncomfortably stretched behind her back.

In the context of the evolution of sculpture, the Little Dancer is a groundbreaking work of art. The liberating idea that any medium or technique necessary to convey the desired effect is fair game may be traced back to this sculpture. Degas represented a working–class subject, though not an everyday one, with both realism and compassion, but without moralizing. In so doing, he captured with brilliant simplicity the difficult tension between art and life.

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  • Title: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen
  • Date Created: 1878 - 1881
  • Physical Dimensions: w347 x h989 x d352 cm (overall without base)
  • Type: Sculpture
  • Rights: Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
  • External Link: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • Medium: yellow wax, hair, ribbon, linen bodice, satin shoes, muslin tutu, wood base
  • sculptor: Edgar Degas
  • Theme: figure, female
  • School: French
  • Provenance: The artist [1834 1917]; his heirs;[1] Adrien Aurélien Hébrard [1865 1937], Paris;[2] his daughter, Nelly Hébrard [1904 1985], Paris;[3] consigned 1955 to (M. Knoedler & Company, Inc., New York); purchased May 1956 by Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia; bequest 1999 to NGA. [1] The artist's heirs were René De Gas, his last surviving brother, who lived in Paris, and the four (of seven) surviving children of his sister Marguerite, who had died in Argentina in 1895. (His other deceased sister Thérèse left no descendants.) Marguerite's children were: Jeanne Fevre, unmarried and acting on both her own behalf and as the representative of her sister, Madeleine Marie Pauline Fevre, a Carmelite nun; Henri Jean Auguste Marie Fevre, an industrialist who lived in Marseille; and Gabriel Edgar Eugène Fevre, an agent in Montevideo, Uruguay. See Anne Pingeot and Frank Horvat, Degas sculptures, Paris, 1991, and Anne Pingeot, "The casting of Degas' sculptures: Completing the story," Apollo (August 1995): 60 63. [2] On 13 May 1918 a contract was signed between the artist's heirs and the Hébrard foundry authorizing the reproduction of Degas' sculptures in bronze. Of the approximately 150 statuettes found in the artist's studio after his death, 74 figures were ultimately cast in bronze. The contract stipulated that two complete sets were to be cast, one for the heirs and one for the foundry, and authorized a limit of twenty casts of each figure to be offered for sale. The casting process took at least thirteen years, from 1919 to 1932, and according to the contract, the original figures became the property of the foundry. See Sara Campbell, "Degas' bronzes: Introduction," Apollo (August 1995): 6 10. [3] The article by Anne Pingeot referenced in note 1 provides details of the role of Hébrard's daughter in the history of the foundry, and its work in casting the bronzes.

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