Degas exhibited only one sculpture during his lifetime, the wax
Little Dancer Fourteen Years Old (Dressed Ballet Dancer), at the
Sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881. (A plaster cast from this wax
is in the National Gallery of Art's collection.) Many critics reacted with
shock to its subject, which they found harshly realistic and even
ugly, and to its unconventional incorporation of actual, rather than
sculpturally imitated, fabric and hair.
In his other sculptures, not meant for exhibition, Degas worked less
in pursuit of perfect forms than in restless exploration of movement
and composition. Using soft, pliable materials, he built up his
figures on makeshift armatures reinforced with brush handles,
matches, or whatever else was at hand. The waxes, whose lumpish
surfaces leave his labor visible, have a translucent character that
conveys an astonishing sense of life.
Like the Little Dancer, The Tub employs actual as well as represented
materials. The figure may be wax, the water plaster, but they
occupy a real lead basin resting on a wooden base covered with
plaster-soaked rags. In a bird's-eye view, the circular tub and
square base create a foil for the convoluted twists of the figure. The
result is an intriguing interplay of two-dimensional geometric
shapes and three-dimensional natural forms.