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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” by Edgar Degas (MET)

"The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer" by Edgar Degas

“The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer”

by Edgar Degas

“The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” by Edgar Degas is a sculpture begun about 1880 by Edgar Degas of a young student of the Paris Opera Ballet dance school. The statue is one-third life size and was initially sculpted in wax. The dancer is dressed in a bodice, tutu and ballet slippers. This sculpture is one of 28 bronze repetitions that appear in museums around the world which were cast after Degas’ death. The tutus worn by the bronzes vary from museum to museum.

The arms are taut, and the legs and feet are placed in a ballet position, and there is tension in the pose, an image of a young adolescent ballerina being put through her paces. The sculpture depicts one of Degas’s favourite themes, dancers captured in various poses. Ballet dancers were one of Degas’ favourite subjects.  Degas told a Parisian art dealer:

“People call me the painter of dancing girls, it has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.” 

These dancers were known as “petits rats de l’opéra,” literally “opera rats”, because of their scurrying around the opera stage in tiny, fast-moving steps.  Young, pretty, and poor, the ballet students were potential targets of wealthy patrons; thus, the term also had negative connotations. In this world or wealth and poverty, Degas’s studio was once visited by the police morals unit, wanting to know why so many little girls were coming and going. The exact relationship between the model and Edgar Degas is a matter of debate.

At the ballet, Degas captured a world that excited his taste for classical beauty and his eye for modern realism. He became a regular visitor to the Paris Opéra and its Ballet, and he invented new techniques for drawing and painting the world of pink and white, so full of hard work, ritual and tradition.

At the sixth Impressionist exhibition of 1881, Edgar Degas showed the original of this sculpture, which was the only sculpture that he ever exhibited in public. The sculpture was not well received by the critics who protested that she was ugly. The mixed media of the sculpture, basically a wax statuette dressed in real clothes, was very innovative, and the work’s realism was revolutionary.

After Degas death, his heirs authorised that copies be cast in bronze of his wax sculptures. Paul-Albert Bartholomé, a sculptor and Degas’s friend, prepared the figures for casting, a process executed by a Paris foundry. The quality of the bronzes was controlled, and their edition was limited.

Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas (1834–1917) was prolific in paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings. He was fond of the subject of dance, and more than half of his works depict dancers. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, although Degas rejected the term, preferring to be called a Realist. He was masterly in depicting movement, as can be seen in his many masterpieces of dancers, racecourse subjects and female nudes.

Upon Degas’s death, more than 150 figurative sculptures were found in his studio. Most were made of wax, clay, and plasticine. Many had deteriorated. Except for the wax “Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer,” none of the other sculptures had been publicly exhibited during the Degas’s lifetime.

The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer

  • Title:             The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer
  • French:          La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans
  • Artist:            Edgar Degas
  • Founder:       Cast by A. A. Hébrard (Paris)
  • Dates:           1880 (conceived) 1922 (cast), 2018 (tutu)
  • Materials:     Partially tinted bronze, cotton tarlatan, silk satin, and wood
  • Dimensions: H. 38 1/2 x W. 17 1/4 x D. 14 3/8 in. (97.8 x 43.8 x 36.5 cm)
  • Museum:      Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET

Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas Insights

  • Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas was born in Paris, France, in 1834.
  • He was the eldest son of a wealthy banker, and a Creole woman from New Orléans, who died when Degas was 13.
  • His father appreciated his son’s artistic talent, but he wanted his son to become a lawyer, so Degas duly enrolled in law school, but soon dropped out.
  • His teachers encouraged Degas to copy the Old Masters at the Louvre. This advice became early practice, and he made many copies of works by Michelangelo, Raphael and other Renaissance artists.
  • Degas was also a sculptor but did not make his sculptures for the public.
  • The only sculpture Degas ever exhibited publicly was The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, in 1881.
  • Dancers were frequent subjects in his art, particularly the dancers of the Paris Opera.
  • He is famous for his paintings of ballerinas, at work, in rehearsal or at rest.
  • A significant theme of Degas’ work was paintings of women in the bath or at their toilette.
  • Degas’ interest in the female nude, persisted throughout his career.
  • Horses and horse racing were also key subjects of Degas work.
  • Degas produced some 45 oil paintings of horse races.
  • Degas lived into the 20th century, and promoted his work tirelessly and became an art collector.
  • He did have close relationships with several women, including the American painter Mary Cassatt.
  • Edgar Degas sided with the “anti-Dreyfusards” the Dreyfus Affair. His antisemitism alienated him from many of his friends.
  • Degas was troubled with eye problems. He had to wear dark glasses outdoors and stop his work in 1912.
  • Edgar Degas died in Paris in 1917. He was 83 years old.
  • Degas never married.
  • Today Degas is considered a pioneer of the Impressionism movement.

Reflections

  • Did the critics get this one wrong?
  • After nearly 140 years, does she still shock and amaze?

Explore MET European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Collection

Edgar Degas Quotes

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“Beauty is a mystery, but no one knows it anymore.
The recipes, the secrets are forgotten.”

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“The creation of a painting takes as much trickery and premeditation as the commitment of a crime.”

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“Everyone has talent at twenty-five. The difficulty is to have it at fifty.”

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“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

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“I should like to be famous and unknown.”

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“Muses work all day long and then at night, get together and dance…”

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“I would rather do nothing than do a rough sketch without having looked at anything. My memories will do better.”

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“Conversation in real life is full of half-finished sentences and overlapping talk. Why shouldn’t painting be too?”

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“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.”

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“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

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“We were created to look at one another, weren’t we?”

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“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.”

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“We were created to look at one another, weren’t we?”
– Edgar Degas

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Photo Credit: Edgar Degas [Public domain]

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