Art and Reality: the Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer by Degas

Many visitors to the Fifth Impressionist exhibition stopped in front of a strange empty showcase. Of course, it wasn’t an art object; сonceptual art did not yet exist in 1880. The glass case was intended for the sculpture The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer that the artist Edgar Degas promised to prepare. Degas did not meet the deadline: the task he set himself turned out to be quite tricky.

The Girl With Thick Black Hair

Degas made his first wax figurines back in the 1860s. He created the statuettes just for fun and never exhibited them. Initially, the artist sculpted statuettes of horses. Shortly before the Fifth impressionist exhibition, he tried using wax for conveying the forms of human bodies.

He started to work on a relatively big – one-third life-size – and truly realistic figure of a teenage ballerina.

History is silent about how he came to this idea, but we know from reliable sources the name of his model – Marie van Goethem.

Marie lived near Edgar Degas’ studio. She was one of three daughters of a laundress who raised her children alone on her modest income.

Two of the girls, Marie and Charlotte, were enrolled in the Opéra’s ballet school (at that time, girls usually entered such schools not out of an interest in the world of dance but just out of the need for feeding themselves soon).

Marie must have posed for Degas willingly – it was a profitable part-time job for the girl. She earned five to six francs per four-hour sitting.

The artist often invited her to his studio – before undertaking to model the figure, he drew the girl at least 16 (!) times. Marie posed for these preparatory sketches and some of Degas’ artworks – for example, the pastel Dancer with a Fan.

Here it is:

Dancer with a Fan, 1879

Please look at the drawing and pay attention to an interesting detail – Marie hasn’t styled her beautiful black tresses in a traditional bun perfect for dance. Proud of her locks, the girl probably insisted on wearing them hanging down her back during rehearsals.

Who knows, maybe, precisely this was the reason why Degas decided to show Marie’s hair in a highly realistic way…

A Child of Parisian Streets

The fact that Degas chose wax as the medium for the sculpture was enough to surprise his contemporaries. However, the artist went further.

He gave the little ballerina natural hair tied with a ribbon, and that is not all. Degas dressed the wax girl in manufactured clothing. Even the slippers were genuine.

A copy of The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer

Actually, Degas invented assemblage, a method of creating three-dimensional artwork from different manufactured items.

Degas’ innovation was not an end in itself. He did not seek to shock somebody or, God forbid, to overthrow classical art from an honorable pedestal. The artist simply wanted to portray his model convincingly. 

Striving for the utmost realism, Degas also chose a bold approach to convey the model’s features. An artist inclined to follow the academic standards of the time would have turned a girl from the streets of Paris into a beautiful nymph; Edgar Degas kept Marie’s individuality.

The young dancer lifted her chin, narrowed her eyes, and slightly pursed her lower lip. The ballerina’s facial expression appears contemptuous. But how should a girl look if she has no one to rely on in her life, if her destiny is to entertain male patrons and give them sexual favors?

The Vicious Muzzle

The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer meant a lot to its creator: Degas was determined to exhibit it.

As we already know, he did not manage to finish the work by opening the Fifth Impressionist exhibition. Art lovers saw it at a similar event the following year.

Degas’ sculpture provoked a great scandal. Accustomed to idealized sculptures in marble, the guests of the exhibitions compared the wax ballerina to a monkey and an Aztec.

Critics shared the opinion of the broad audience or felt bewildered at least. Jules Claretie, for instance, spoke of “a Naturalism that is strangely attractive, disturbing, unusual…” and ‘’the vicious muzzle of this little, barely adolescent girl, this little flower of the gutter” at the same time.

The only expert who admired Degas’ artwork without reservation was Joris-Karl Huysmans. He called the piece “the first truly modern attempt at sculpture.”

Bronze Little Dancers

Edgar Degas was not a man to enjoy scandals. He removed the sculpture from the display. The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer has been stored in the artist’s studio for many years.

The painter did not give up making wax figures. As long as his health allowed him to sculpt, Degas often modeled statuettes – figurines of women, for the most part.

He didn’t plan to exhibit these pieces and, in general, didn’t think much of them. The old artist could quickly destroy an already finished figure and create something else out of its material. This was the hobby of a mature master who no longer chases after money or fame.

After Edgar Degas died, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer was found in the corner of his studio.

Degas’ heirs decided this sculpture and the others should be cast in bronze. Sixty-nine of his figures survived the casting process.

Nowadays, copies of The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer are displayed in the best museums around the world. You can see them in France, Russia, and Denmark.

The bronze ballerinas are usually dressed in an actual bodice and tutu like the wax one.

A copy with a long skirt

The original was acquired by the collector Paul Mellon. In 1985, a collector gifted it to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. There the sculpture is kept to this day.

It remains to say a few words about the fate of the model, Marie. Unfortunately, she did not become a star of the scene.

An 1882 newspaper clipping titled “Paris at Night” reads that Marie van Goethem is a regular at two all-night cafés with a terrible reputation.

Her elder sister, Antoinette, went down the slippery slope as well – she is known to be arrested for stealing money from her lover’s wallet and jailed.

Only the youngest girl, Charlotte, more or less successfully found her place in the sun. She continued to practice ballet and subsequently even danced as a soloist.

  1. Degas and His Dancers –  Trachtman, Paul, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2003
  2. The True Story of the Little Ballerina Who Influenced Degas’ “Little Dancer” –  Amy Henderson, Smithsonian Magazine November, 2014
  3. Degas: the artist’s mind – Theodore Reff, New York : The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Harper & Row, 1976 

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Natalia Usanova
I am a poet and an amateur artist. A few years ago, it seemed to me creating works of art is a much more important occupation than reading books, visiting galleries, or listening to music. Now I don't think so. Let me share with you the masterpieces which have changed my life and can change yours. Follow me on Twitter!

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