In 1881, a fourteen-year-old girl divided the Parisian art world. She was a lowly dancer, only a small thing, but the subject of a now instantly recognisable icon of modern art, Edgar Degas’ sculpture Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. Degas debuted her at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition, where he was met with both ridicule and respect for his depiction of the seemingly unassuming moment a young student of the Paris Opera Ballet dance school stretched herself into a relaxed version of fourth position (although apparently not without some pain, as her strain is palpable). For an art world accustomed to idealised marble sculptures in imitation of classical antiquity, this was shocking – he had sculpted her from beeswax, and adorned her with a tutu and ribbons. Was this Degas’ frivolous joke, just a mocking wink at a straight-laced bourgeois society, or a more vicious indictment? Or was he simply trying to experiment, push the boundaries of what art could be?
‘Little Dancer’ will likely never travel from her home in Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art again, as she is too fragile due to the precarious nature of wax. Still, these days, we know Degas’ dancer rather well – no less than sixty nine copies survived a forty-year casting process at the Hébrard foundry, and twenty eight of these reside in museums the world over – although she is no less remarkable for it, even if she does not have quite the same scandalous associations anymore. Now, however, and for the first time, Stair Sainty gallery will be exhibiting what is believed to be the version closest to the original wax sculpture, according to compelling new evidence put forward by art historian Dr. Gregory Hedberg. In his monograph Degas’s Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen: The Earlier Version That Helped Spark the Birth of Modern Art, Hedberg argues that the versions we know best from museums such as the Tate Modern, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée d’Orsay actually represent subsequent reworkings of the original. Most of the casts made at the foundry were done so after Degas’ death, executed by his heirs over a roughly forty year period, but do not correspond to contemporary descriptions of the original. A plaster cast (known as the Valsuani cast) unearthed in the 1990s, however, far better matches these descriptions, suggesting that this was taken from the original 1881 version – and, Hedberg believes, this was executed by Degas himself, opening up to us a far wider understanding of his artistic practice and development. From 27th April 2017, Stair Sainty will be exhibiting the bronze taken from the Valsuani cast – and so another piece of the story falls into place .
What is the story so far? The 1881 dancer, we know, was the subject of much
controversy. She was compared by Degas’ contemporaries to an exhibit at Madame Tussaud’s. He had taken the respectable tradition of classical sculpture and made it tawdry, gaudy, and embarrassing. But it was more than the medium that made it so shocking for Paris society. It was not so much that it was as crude as your typical waxwork model – quite the opposite, in fact. Degas so successfully breathed life into his subject matter, it was like she’d arrived in the flesh, transmuted from the material. Aside from her slightly diminished scale, he could not have made her more real had he animated her with clockwork. But a common dancer was a less than savoury subject, and that was what made it so brazen. Such a lowly, dirty, vulgar little thing had no place in the art world, yet it was as if this slip of a girl had simply wandered in off the street uninvited.
Of course, the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie and the underworld of the working classes were never quite separate spheres in fin-de-siècle Paris; were often interchangeable. The opera scene, for example, was in many ways a cross-section of society. But there, the rich were ensconced in their carpeted boxes, while those who entertained them did so safely at arm’s length, down on the bare wooden boards. Even then, nobody would expect to rub shoulders with a dancer, yet here in the exhibition they did so almost literally. The intimacy of this encounter must have been uncomfortable.
But perhaps that was Degas’ meaning. By forcing this uncomfortable intimacy upon viewers, he may have been hinting that the upper and lower classes not only encountered one another in public spaces, but often knew each other in a much more immediate – more unpalatable – sense. Not for nothing did critics call the sculpture ‘depraved’. Dancers were also associated with prostitution, and the uncomfortable truth was that many of the richest men in society were the loyalist customer base these girls had. Whether or not Degas’ model, the Belgian Marie von Goethem, was herself a prostitute, to critics like Paul Mantz she signified ‘the hateful promise of every vice’. The fact was, an adolescent girl with a background on the stage was associated with burgeoning sin. The ‘promise’ of vice suggested that her destiny was already spelled out – she was a ‘flower of precious depravity.’
The idea that a person could literally embody immorality, that their life could be spelled out in their very physicality, was also associated with the fields of physiognomy and phrenology, which linked genetic markers such as the shape of a person’s facial features and head to so-called inbuilt personality traits. Some of Marie’s more prominent features, such as her forehead, were thought to show her criminal tendencies. And, thanks to the publication of Charles Darwin’s theories earlier in the century, this could also be linked to evolution, whereby the ‘lowest’ in society – whether because of their class, race, criminality or insanity – were seen as less developed in appearance and intelligence. One critic demanded, ‘Can art descend any lower?’, claiming Degas had depicted a ‘semi-idiot.’ Another compared the sculpture to a monkey. The guise of ‘scientific’ theory perpetuated demeaning stereotypes that made subjects like Degas’ seem abhorrent to ‘respectable’ viewers. But this horrified reaction tells far more of the audience than it does the subject – what does it say about Parisian society that a sculpture of a barely teenage girl practicing her ballet was ever read as a harbinger of vice and degeneration? Was this Degas’ real point? We know that he did not exactly show respect to the dancers he depicted, using the nickname ‘petits rats’ to refer to them, but perhaps this sculpture was an expression of equal contempt for Salon society. ‘High’ and ‘low’ were flattened out in this initial encounter.
Not everyone thought Degas had created something ugly and depraved. In fact, many critics heaped high praise upon him, comparing the use of the real tutu and ribbons to the draperies in classical Greek and Egyptian sculptures. The writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, meanwhile, called it ‘the first truly modern attempt at sculpture’. It holds its own as a truly pioneering piece to this day, even in reproduction. Degas looks to the classical past, but also introduces to us the shock of the familiar everyday; his use of real, inexpensive clothing precluding Duchamp’s readymades. But the sheer believability of the figure’s position in space – the weight on her leg, the tautness in her arms – is extraordinary in itself. Even the smallest details, like the wrinkle on her tights and her squint of concentration, seem heroic. That’s what the story of the Little Dancer is about, really. The small becoming the heroic. The fourteen-year-old who divided the art-world, defiant in her concentration on the only thing that mattered to her in that moment – dancing. The opportunity to see her at Stair Sainty is about as close to meeting her as we could get, now we know how close this particular cast is to the original. The real Marie von Goethem, it’s said, probably died tragically young, but she lives on here, triumphantly, in bronze.
– Olivia Bladen
‘Degas: Little Dancer Rediscovered‘ will be showing at Stair Sainty, 38 Dover Street, London, W1S 4NL; from 27th April to 26th May 2017; open Daily 10AM – 6PM