Petite danseuse de quatorze ans by Edgar Degas will feature in the forthcoming Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s in London on 24th June 2015. It is perhaps his most important sculpture. The artist’s ambitious and highly innovative work marks the pinnacle of his achievements as a sculptor, and its forthcoming sale represents a rare opportunity to acquire an icon of Impressionist art.”
Petite danseuse de quatorze ans is the most ambitious and iconic of Degas’ works and one of only a handful of bronze casts that remain in private hands – the majority are housed in major international museum collections, including Tate, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Museé d’Orsay, Paris.
The art historian Richard Kendall, co-curator of the Royal Academy’s exhibition Degas and the Ballet wrote*: “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 recognisable to millions and admired throughout the world.”
Celebrated for the revolutionary nature of its modern sculptural form, this groundbreaking work from the Impressionist period was the only sculpture exhibited during Degas’ lifetime. When the wax model was first seen by audiences at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881 in Paris, the unflinching realism of Petite danseuse de quatorze ans excited considerable comment. Rather than showing the graceful poise and elegance expected of the dancer, with this sculpture Degas focused on capturing a momentary glimpse that exposed the relentless work that a ballerina’s performance demands. It was hailed for its modernity as much as it was chastised for its perceived vulgarity.
The critic J.K. Huysmans remarked, “ M. Degas has knocked over the traditions of sculpture, just as he has for a long time been shaking up the conventions of painting, At once refined and barbaric, this statuette is the only truly modern attempt I know in sculpture”, whilst Nina de Villars identified that “the artist should reassure himself: the work not understood today will perhaps one day be regarded respectfully in a museum as the first work of a new art”.
Others were shocked by the realism of the work and Degas’ unconventional use of materials. Paul Mantz wrote in Le Temps, “The piece is finished and let us acknowledge right away that the result is nearly terrifying… with bestial effrontery she moves her face forward, or rather her little muzzle – and this work is completely correct because this poor little girl is the beginning of a rat . . . Degas is no doubt a moralist; he perhaps knows things about the dancers of the future that we do not. He gathered from the espaliers of the theatre a precociously depraved flower, and he shows her to us withered before her time.”
Degas created Petite danseuse de quatorze ans using a wire armature for the body and hemp for the arms and hands, Degas worked in modelling wax, dressing the figure in real silk, tulle and gauze, and the wig came from Madame Cusset, a supplier of hair for puppets and dolls. This original wax model was first exhibited in 1917 and subsequently cast in bronze.
His fourteen-year-old model was Marie van Goethem, the daughter of a Belgian tailor and laundress who was among the dancers of the Opéra. These young girls, the ‘rats’ of the Opéra as they were known at the time, were of particular interest to Degas. Degas used these dancers as the source of his inspiration for many of his most important works in various different media, including Danseuse au repos, an exquisite pastel and gouache created in the same period, which sold for a world record price for the artist of $37,042,500 at Sotheby’s New York in November 2008.
Degas: ‘Petite danseuse de quatorze ans’ Photo: courtesy Sotheby’s