In 1881 Edgar Degas (1834-1917) exhibited Little Fourteen-Year- Old Dancer, his 37½-inch wax and clay sculpture, for the first and only time during his life. He dressed Little Dancer in a wig with a leek green ribbon tied around the braid and a matching ribbon around the neck. The figure wore a tutu and ballet slippers and there may have been a touch of lipstick on the mouth. Reaction to the sculpture was mixed, perhaps because the lifelike presentation of an adolescent dance student in a real costume seemed strange at the time.
One critic praised the sculpture as a “truly modern initiative …” Other critics turned their attention to the model with harsh complaints. “Wishing to present us with a statuette of a dancer, he has chosen amongst the most odiously ugly… 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, but in a museum of art, really? … With her small eyes, high cheeks, and low brow …. archetype of horror and imbecility…. the pug-nosed vicious face of this scarcely pubescent girl, a blossoming street urchin, remains unforgettable.”
It is possible that Degas never exhibited Little Fourteen- Year- Old Dancer again to spare the feelings of his young model, Marie von Goethem, a fourteen-year-old ballet student in the Paris Opera. Or, it may have been the fragile nature of the wax and clay medium combined with the makeshift armature he had constructed out of odd bits of things in his studio like paint brushes for the arms and wine corks for the fingers that kept him from exhibiting the sculpture again.
The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer sat in Degas’ apartment for forty years. It is known that he had some discussions about casting the figure in bronze, but only after his death did his family negotiate the casting of between twenty-two and twenty-five bronze statuettes. Most of these are accounted for in major museum collections around the world. The skirts and ribbons are refurbished when necessary so that a photograph from 1919 shows a different image from a more recent photograph.
My drawings and paintings are based on photographs and sketches of the wax model, the plaster cast, and the bronzes located in different museums including The National Gallery of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, The Joslyn Museum of Art in Oklahoma City, and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.
Recasting Little Dancer
By recasting Degas' Little Dancer as a series of to-scale paintings and drawings I hope to engage the viewer to re-think their relationship with the remarkable ambiguities of such a well-known image. The allure of taking as a subject one of the most intriguing figures, and one of the great faces, in the history of 20th century art was compelling. In the process of making the drawings and paintings I found the young model standing before me rather than an iconic statue.
I've set the paintings in a minimalist space, taken her off her pedestal, and portrayed her on high-pitch color backgrounds in order to intensify the power of the figure and to focus on her qualities of transience and permanence.
In developing the drawings of Little Dancer I was drawn to the history of the sculpture and the various meanings that have been conferred upon it, so I focused on the sense of fused opposites within her frame -- her elegance and awkwardness; her reserve and impudence; her fragility and her confidence. These tensions exist in perfect balance, reflecting the fourteen-year-old ballet student on the verge of emerging both as a dancer and as a young woman.
By looking at her from many points of view I call attention as well to the actual girl: Marie Van Goethem, the young child of a working class family who wished to become a great dancer and instead became on of the great muses in the history of art.
I think the work speaks to me so strongly because I became acquainted with the sculpture at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as a young girl of about her age. My interest was reawakened when I had the opportunity to observe the restoration of the original wax figure at the National GAllery of ARt in Washington D.C. I was surprised to learn that Degas used paint brushes as part of his improvised armature, rather than the usual wire. So, in a sense, the notion of paint and painting is inside the original sculpture itself, and I am bringing it back full circle.