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Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917),
Little Dancer, Fourteen Years Old (La Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans) , 1881, cast ca. 1920–21
plaster, height: 39 in., 99.06 cm
Gift of M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, 1971.271.a-b
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A member of a well-to-do Parisian family with strong links to Italy, Degas began his career as an admirer of Ingres and a painter of historical scenes. Perhaps influenced by Edouard Manet, Degas shifted his interest to contemporary life in Paris, especially that of the theatre and the street café. Although not strictly an Impressionist in technique (he constantly disparaged the outdoor painting habits of his associates), he played an active role in the organization of their exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. His visual curiosity was boundless and his art was as experimental as his political and social opinions were rigid. Best known as a painter, Degas worked with photography and printmaking as well as with sculpture, and there was arguably no more influential artist in the nineteenth century than this irascible conservative. 

The model for Little Dancer was Marie van Goethem, a “rat,” as novices at the Paris Ballet were called. Although reminiscent of a standard dance pose (fourth position), her stance is informal; seemingly unaware of being observed, she stretches her arms and shoulders. This “snapshot effect,” the capture of fleeting moments, is characteristic of Degas’ art. 

The sculpture caused a furor when first exhibited in 1881. Made of tinted wax and dressed in real clothes, it outraged many viewers’ sense of propriety. One critic railed: “Wishing to present us with a statuette of a dancer, he has chosen amongst the most odiously ugly. . . . Oh, certainly, at the very bottom of the barrel of the dance school, there are some poor girls who look like this monster, . . . but what good are they in terms of statuary? Put them in a museum of zoology, of anthropology, of physiology, all right: but in a museum of art, really!” This hostility was, however, very much to the point, as Degas was clearly using the sculpture to question accepted ideas of art. Joris-Karl Huysmans, a generally more sympathetic critic, observed: “The terrible truthfulness of this statuette is a source of obvious discomfort . . . all their notions about sculpture, about that cold, inanimate whiteness, those memorable stereotypes replicated for centuries, are demolished. The fact is that, on first blow, M. Degas has overturned the conventions of sculpture.” 

The only sculpture exhibited by Degas in his lifetime, the wax version of the Little Dancer was in poor shape when found in his studio after his death. Under the authority of the estate, over twenty bronze versions, also “dressed” with a ribbon and tutu, were cast by the Paris master founder Adrien A. Hébrard. Joslyn’s plaster is the model from which the bronzes were cast. Reflecting recent research, its present tutu is a recreation of the skirt worn by the original sculpture.

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