Edgar Degas began work on his Little dancer in 1878. His model for the sculpture was an adolescent dance student from the Paris Opera. Degas began by sculpting a nude, then produced a clothed version, for which he used a real ballet costume, including a tutu and point shoes. When Degas first exhibited the sculpture, at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881, the critics were shocked. One of them wrote about the “bestial effrontery” with which the girl thrust her face, “or rather her little muzzle” towards the viewer.
Degas knew the world of the ballet inside out, front stage and back. He drew and painted the young dancers not just in elegant dance positions, but sometimes yawning and bored, or defiantly sexy. And that is how people saw this sculpture in Degas’ own time – as the very picture of the immorality for which the young dancers of the Opera were reputed.
Source: J. Sillevis, ‘De tijd van het impressionisme’, in T.M. Eliëns, J. van Es (eds.), Kunst is keuze, Den Haag, Zwolle 2007.