Petite danseuse de quatorze ans is universally regarded both as Degas's supreme sculptural achievement and as one of the most innovative and important sculptures of the modern age. A candid depiction of a young dancer, the Petite danseuse is the largest and most ambitious of all Degas's sculptures, and the only one that he exhibited during his lifetime. With its unflinching realism and bold combination of materials, the sculpture represented a daring break with academic tradition when it was first shown publicly in 1881. The critic Charles Ephrussi lauded it as "a truly modern effort," while Nina de Villard predicted that it would become "the leading expression of a new art" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Omaha, 1998, p. 45). J.-K. Huysmans called the Petite danseuse "the only truly modern initiative that I know of in sculpture," and proclaimed, "The fact is that at one fell swoop, M. Degas has overthrown the traditions of sculpture, as he has for a long time been shaking up the conventions of painting" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1988, p. 343). Critics today continue to recognize the singular importance of the Petite danseuse. As Richard Kendall wrote in 1998 on the occasion of a major exhibition devoted to the sculpture:
Degas' Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is among the three or four most celebrated sculptures of the modern age. Along with Rodin's The Kiss and the same artist's The Thinker, and perhaps Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty, Degas's statuette of a slender young ballet dancer has become recognizable to millions and admired throughout the world. The Little Dancer was the first major sculpture associated with [Impressionism] and one of the most controversially received exhibits in his history. As a precocious venture into color, as a challenging juxtaposition of naturalism and artifice, and as a frank depiction of the commonplace, the sculpture has since been cited among the precursors of Cubism, Surrealism, and even Pop Art and its recent derivatives... (exh. cat., op. cit., Omaha, 1998, p. 1).
Petite danseuse de quatorze ans is one of only a few sculptures by Degas that can be dated with any certainty. The model for the sculpture--a young dancer named Marie van Goethem, whose name and address are inscribed on a preparatory study (fig. 1)--turned fourteen in February of 1878, indicating that Degas began working on the composition sometime in that year. The sculpture was probably near completion by March of 1880, when it was listed in the catalogue for the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition. At the last minute, however, Degas decided not to show the sculpture at this time. As the critic Gustave Goetschy lamented, "Everything M. Degas produces interests me so keenly that I delayed by one day the publication of this article to tell you about a wax statuette that I hear is marvelous and that represents a fourteen-year-old dancer... But M. Degas isn't an 'Indépendant' for nothing! He is an artist who produces slowly, as he pleases, and at his own pace... All the worse for us! We will not see his Dancer..." (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1988, pp. 342-343).
The sculpture is also unique in Degas's three-dimensional oeuvre in being preceded by an exhaustive series of preparatory drawings. There exist five sheets containing a total of twelve full-length studies for the sculpture (figs. 2-3; cf. Third Atelier sale, lots 277 and 386; Forth Atelier sale, lot 287.1), as well as a page of sketches isolating the head and torso (fig. 1) and one concentrating on the legs and feet (Third Atelier sale, lot 149). Additionally, Degas made two drawings that show Marie with her arms in front of her chest, suggesting that he considered at least one alternative pose for the Petite danseuse before settling on the final composition (L. 599; 3e vente 369). Finally, Degas executed a nude study for the figure in wax, roughly three-quarters the size of the exhibited work--a "vigorous final draft," to quote one scholar, which closely anticipates the pose, proportions, and overall effect of the clothed Petite danseuse (fig. 4).
When the Petite danseuse was finally exhibited in 1881 at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition, it made an immediate and dramatic impact. The exhibition reviews were unanimous in admitting that it was an extraordinary work, even if they disagreed on its relative merits. Many critics, as noted above, praised the work as a daring manifestation of the avant-garde; others were shocked or even appalled by the statue's realism. The most innovative and audacious feature of the sculpture was certainly its incorporation of actual articles of clothing: a muslin bodice and tutu, canvas ballet slippers, and a wig of real hair tied with a satin ribbon. These sartorial elements--which anticipate the use of found materials in Cubism, Dada, and Pop--constituted a veritable affront to nineteenth-century viewers, many of whom dismissively compared the dressed wax figure to a doll, puppet, or shop mannequin. With its distinctive facial features and adolescent anatomy, the Petite danseuse also represented a striking contrast to the idealized figurative sculpture of Degas's day. Eschewing academic tradition, Degas carefully reproduced Marie's receding chin, broad cheeks, and small forehead, as well as her gangly limbs and flat chest--the awkward physiognomy of a fourteen-year-old girl, delicately poised between childhood and maturity. Spurning the perfection of the performance, moreover, Degas captured Marie at a revealing and imperfect moment, perhaps waiting in the wings of the theater. She is self-absorbed and off-guard, her eyes half-closed, reflexively assuming a stance conditioned by years of rigorous training as she awaits her cue to perform.
Notably, much of the negative criticism of the Petite danseuse focused not on the novelty of its materials but on the moral issues raised by the physical aspect of the dancer. The sculpture epitomized for many of Degas's contemporaries the sexually available "rat" or young Opira trainee, given definitive form in a well-known series of stories that Degas's friend Ludovic Halévy published during the 1870s. For Ephrussi, the Petite danseuse represented "the Opéra rat in her modern form, learning her craft, with all her disposition and stock of bad instincts and licentious inclinations" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Omaha, 1998, p. 21). In the same vein, Paul Mantz described the dancer's expression as one of "brutish insolence," and asked, "Why is her forehead, as are her lips, so profoundly marked by vice?" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1988, p. 343).
Discussing the complex and conflicting reactions to which the Petite danseuse gave rise, Kendall has written:
What is overwhelmingly evident is that, from its inception, Degas chose to engage with one of the most resonant images of his day, an image that was seen by his peers to link high art with the gutter and to provoke anxiety as much as approval. More versed than we in these social semaphores, Degas's audiences were either thrilled by its novelty or exasperated by its awkwardness, while none seemed indifferent to the sculpture's presence. Those accustomed to the sparkling elegance of Garnier's auditorium were perplexed by the elevation of a mere 'rat'...to such prominence, while the 'adepts' of the new art...were thrilled by its audacity. Experts in the dance were able to concede the 'singular exactitude' of the work, while those expecting titillation were thwarted at every turn by the indifferent expression of the dancer's pinched features or by the lack of voluptuousness in her young body. And for established followers of Degas's art, here was another challenge: a colored, three-dimensional object by a painter they knew well, leading them from the familiar illusions of pictorial space to the treacherous pseudo-realities of sculpture" (exh. cat., op. cit., Omaha, 1998, p. 24).
Unfortunately, relatively little is known about the private life of Marie van Goethem, the young dancer who posed for this extraordinary portrait. Born on 17 February 1864 to a Belgian tailor and laundress, Marie was the middle of three sisters, all of whom were enrolled as ballet students at the Opéra. The family resided on the lower slopes of Montmartre at 36 rue de Douai, just a few doors from Degas's friend Ludovic Halévy and near several studios and apartments that the artist himself rented during this period. Marie is believed to have posed for several other works by Degas around the same time as the Petite danseuse, including The Dance Class (L. 479; Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Dancer Resting (fig. 5). By 1882, she had apparently become well-known as an artist's model, earning note in the Parisian daily L'Evénement as: "Mlle Van Goeuthen [sic.]... Poses for painters. Therefore frequents the Brasserie des Martyrs and Le Rat Mort" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1988, pp. 346-347). Lillian Browse has proposed that Marie may have continued to pose for Degas as late as the mid-1880s, appearing in a group of pastels that depict dancers with long, unpinned tresses (L. 471-473, 483-485). A recent study by Martine Kahane, however, casts doubt on this hypothesis, indicating that Marie was in fact dismissed from the Opéra midway through 1882 after failing to attend eleven ballet classes.
The history of the casting of the Petite danseuse is even more complicated than that of the other seventy-three bronzes in Degas's oeuvre. The possibility of casting first arose in 1903 in conjunction with an effort by Louisine Havemeyer to purchase the wax original. Although the sale did not come to fruition, several references in Degas's correspondence--in particular, a letter to the sculptor Bartholomi that begins: "My dear friend, and perhaps caster..."-- indicate that the artist seriously considered casting the Petite danseuse at this time. In the end, the casting of the sculpture was not actually undertaken until 1921, four years after Degas's death. Despite the difficulty of translating the multi-media original into bronze, contemporary observers were universally pleased with the results. In a letter to Degas's niece Jeanne Fevre in June of 1921, Mary Cassatt reported, "Before leaving Paris last Thursday I saw the exhibition of your uncle's bronzes. M. Durand said that the large dancer has just been cast and that the result surpassed even M. Hébrard's expectations" (quoted in ibid., p. 352). Six months later, Cassatt again wrote to Fevre, "Mrs. Havemeyer [has] acquired the first cast of the large dancer... I have not been able to see the statue enough to judge the reproduction, but I heard from others that it was admirable" (quoted in ibid., p. 352).
The present bronze was one of only two complete sets of Degas' bronzes consigned to the United States, the other set was purchased by Louisine Havemeyer and now resides in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In 1922, it was exhibited in the celebrated first show of Degas bronzes at Durand-Ruel Galleries, New York.
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Quatre études d'une danseuse, 1878-1879. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 2) Edgar Degas, Trois études d'une danseuse en quatrième position, 1879-1880. The Art Institute of Chicago.
(fig. 3). Edgar Degas, Trois études d'une danseuse, 1879-1880. Private Collection.
(fig. 4). Edgar Degas, Jeune danseuse nue, étude pour la danseuse de quatorze ans, circa 1878-1880.
(fig. 5). Edgar Degas, Danseuse, pendant le repos, circa 1879-1880. Private collection.
Petite danseuse de quatorze ans
Bronze with brown patina, muslin skirt, satin hair ribbon and wooden base
New York, Durand-Ruel Galleries, Exhibition of Bronzes by Degas, 1834-1917, December 1922.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, An Exhibition of Works by Edgar Hilaire Germain Degas, 1958.
San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. William Goetz, 1959, no. 15 (illustrated).
Los Angeles, City National Bank, Selected Paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. William Goetz, 1967, no. 6 (illustrated).
Height: 38 1/2 in. (97.8 cm.)
P. Mantz, "Exposition des oeuvres des artistes indépendants," Le Temps, April 23, 1881, p. 3.
J.-K. Huysmans, L'Art Moderne, Paris, 1883, pp. 226-227.
P. Gsell, "Edgar Degas, Statuaire", La Renaissance de l'art français et des industries de luxe, December 1918, pp. 374-376 (wax version illustrated).
P. Lafond, Degas, Paris, 1919, vol. II, pp. 64-66.
P.-A. Lemoisne, "Les Statuettes de Degas", Art de décoration, September-October 1919, pp. 111-113 (wax version illustrated, p. 112).
L'Art et les Artistes, January 1923, p. 158 (another cast illustrated).
J. Meier-Graefe, Degas, London, 1923, p. 60.
P. Jamot, Degas, Paris, 1924, p. 149 (wax version illustrated, pl. 52).
A. Vollard, Degas 1834-1917, Paris, 1924, p. 63.
G. Bazin, "Degas sculpteur," L'Amour de l'Art, July 1931, pp. 294-295 (illustrated, figs. 70-71).
G. Grappe, Degas, Paris, 1936, p. 58 (wax version illustrated).
L. Venturi, Les archives de l'impressionnisme, Paris, 1939, vol. II, p. 138.
J. Rewald, Degas, Works in Sculpture, A Complete Catalogue, New York, 1944, pp. 63-69, no. XX (wax version and another cast illustrated).
M. Rebatet, Degas, Paris, 1944, pl. 102 (another cast illustrated).
P.-A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Paris, 1946, vol. I, p. 129 (another cast illustrated).
L. Browse, Degas Dancers, New York, 1949, no. 96, p. 370 (another cast illustrated, pls. 96-97).
A.M. Frankfurter, "The Goetz Collection," Art News, Sept. 1951, p. 26 (illustrated).
J. Rewald, Degas Sculpture, New York, 1958, no. XX (another cast illustrated; pls. 24-29).
P. Cabanne, Edgar Degas, New York, 1958, pp. 66-67 (another cast illustrated pls. X-XI).
J. Rewald, The History of Impressionism, New York, 1961, p. 451 (another cast illustrated).
H.H. Arnason, History of Modern Art, New York, 1968, p. 76 (another cast illustrated).
J. Lassaigne and F. Minervino, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Degas, Milan, 1970, p.145, no. S73 (another cast illustrated).
J. Adhémar and F. Cachin, Edgar Degas. Gravures et monotypes, Paris, 1973, pl. XXXI (another cast illustrated).
C. W. Millard, The Sculpture of Edgar Degas, Princeton, 1976, figs. 26 and 28 (another cast illustrated).
T. Reff, Degas: The Artist's Mind, New York, 1976, pp. 240 and 245 (another cast illustrated).
I. Dunlop, Degas, New York, 1979, fig. 172 (another cast illustrated).
P.-A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, New York and London, 1984, vol. 1, p. 129 (another cast illustrated).
R. McMullen, Degas. His Life, Times and Work, Boston, 1984, p. 333 (another cast illustrated).
M. Guillaud, ed., Degas Form and Space, Paris and New York, 1984, fig. 155 (illustrated).
G.T.H. Shackelford, Degas The Dancers, Washington, 1984, no. 18, p. 134 (wax version illustrated, p. 64; another cast illustrated, p. 134).
H.W. Janson, 19th Century Sculpture, New York, 1985, pp. 193-194, fig. 219 (another cast illustrated).
D. Sutton, Edgar Degas Life and Work, New York, 1986, pp. 187, pl. 169 (another cast illustrated).
R. Thompson, Degas, The Nudes, London, 1988, p. 263, no. 113 (wax version and another cast illustrated, p. 123).
R. Gordon and A. Forge, Degas, New York, 1988, pp. 206-207 (another cast illustrated).
A. Roquebert, Degas, Paris, 1988, p. 55 (another cast illustrated, fig. 62).
H. Loyrette, Degas, Paris, 1991, pp. 387, 391-394, 402, 612-614 and 672.
A. Pingeot and F. Horvat, Degas Sculptures, Paris, 1991, pp. 188-190, no. 73 (another cast illustrated, pp. 33-35, 188-190 and on the cover).
S. Campbell, "Degas, The Sculpture: A Catalogue Raisonné", Apollo, vol. CXLII, (no. 402), August 1995, pp. 46-47 (another cast illustrated, p. 46; illustrated again on the cover).
M. Kahane, D. Pinasa, W. Piollet and S. Campbell, "Enquête sur la Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans de Degas", La revue du Musée d'Orsay, Autumn 1998, p. 69, no. 6 (another cast illustrated, p. 70).
Durand-Ruel Galleries, New York (1922).
Ferargil Galleries, New York (1925).
Mr. and Mrs. William Goetz, Los Angeles (by 1951); Estate sale, Christie's, New York, 14 November 1988, lot 17.
Private collection (acquired at the above sale).
Anon. sale, Sotheby's, New York, 11 November 1999, lot 110.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.