What do you see? A young dancer of fourteen years old is shown at 70 percent of her real size (the sculpture is a bit taller than 3 foot or about 1 meter). She seems relaxed and is standing in ballet’s fourth position (there are seven positions for the feet in ballet, and the ballerina here has her feet in open fourth position – about 12 inches apart and facing different directions). She is sculpted realistically and Degas intends to show the hard life of a ballet dancer and what it does to her body. Her back leg supports most of her weight. She has thin legs and arms. She holds her arms behind her back and has her hands clasped together. She confidently holds up her chin, pushes her shoulders back, and her eyes are half closed. She wears ballet shoes, a real tutu made of tarlatan, and a gold-colored bodice (a vest) made of linen. She also wears a real ribbon in her plaited hair. Degas used real hair for this sculpture, which he covered in wax.
Backstory: The original wax sculpture in the National Gallery of Art is mixed with some real materials (like the tutu and the ribbon in her hair). The sculpture has been modeled after a fourteen-year-old girl named Marie van Goethem. She lived in Paris and joined the Paris Opera Ballet to escape the poverty of her family. Degas was a frequent visitor at the ballet school and watched their classes and performances. He used Marie not only as a model for this sculpture but also for quite some other works, including many drawing of dancers that he made. One example of such a drawing is Dancer Bending Forward in the Chicago Art Institute. Modeling for Degas was a nice way for Marie to make some extra money. She not only modeled dressed as a ballerina but also nude, which allowed Degas to study her anatomy in detail. In the National Gallery of Art, you can also see two studies in the nude of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Marie graduated from the ballet school in 1880 and would start to perform in ballet performances. However, a couple of years later, in 1882, she missed several rehearsals and was dismissed. After that, we do not know what happened to Marie’s further life.
Copies: The National Gallery of Art holds two statues (the original wax statue and a bronze casting) of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen as well as two nude studies for this statue. When Degas died, about 150 statues were found in his studio of which only one of the versions in the National Gallery of Art had been shown to the public at an exhibition. Many of these statues were in bad shape, but about half of these statues were repaired after his death. The National Gallery of Art has many of these original statues. The surviving family of Degas decided to create about 22 bronze casts of these statues. Because of this, nowadays, bronze copies of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen can be found in many other locations besides the ones mentioned on the top. For example, the statue is also in the Chicago Institute of Art, Harvard Art Museums, Metropolitan Museum of Art (currently not on view), and the Norton Simon Museum. One of the bronze copies of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was sold in 2009 for $19 million.
Who is Degas? Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas (1834-1917) was born in Paris. Whereas he spent most of his life in Paris, he also lived for three years in Italy and spent time in Florence, Naples, and Rome. He started as a more traditional painter by creating historical stories and portraits, but during the 1860s he changed his style and became one of the founders of impressionism, together with artists like Cézanne, Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir. He changed his focus and started to paint scenes from everyday life with a particular interest in dancers, theater, and horseracing. He moved on to focus on more realistic paintings, and one such example is Interior in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He made statues mainly as training to understand the anatomy and movements of people.
Fun fact: When Degas showed this sculpture at an Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1881, many people did not like it at all. For example, some people called the sculpture a monkey. It also did not help that the sculpture was on display in a glass vitrine. Sculptures typically were idealized versions of well-known people created in marble. Instead, Degas created an unknown young girl from Paris, and the girl did not look at all like a goddess. On top of that, he created this sculpture from beeswax and he added objects like a tutu to the statue. Because of the negative reactions Degas got, he removed the statue from the exhibition and stored it in his studio until his death.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Canvas or statue (Amazon links).
Where? Gallery 255 of the Museum of Fine Arts
What do you see? This painting shows a story on the cycle of life. It consists of three parts corresponding to the three questions in the title of the painting.
Backstory: The French title of this painting is D'où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? Gauguin included this title on the top left of the painting. A valuable source of information to understand this painting are the letters that Gauguin wrote to George-Daniel de Monfreid, an art collector and painter in France. Based on these letters, we know that when Gauguin started to work on this painting, he was in a dark period of this life. He faced quite some debt, bad health, the death of his favorite daughter, and he wanted to kill himself. However, before dying, he wanted to complete a large canvas about the meaning of life. For about one month, he worked day and night on the painting. When it was finished, he considered this to be his best work ever and wrote that he would never make a better painting. Some other works that he completed during this dark period of his life are the Landscape with Two Goats (also known as Tarari Maruru) and Man Picking Fruit from a Tree. After Gauguin completed the Where Do We Come From painting, he attempted suicide but failed at it. The painting was exhibited in 1898 in Paris and received mixed reviews. In 1901, the painting was sold for 2500 French Francs (which is equivalent to almost $15,000 in 2017).
Who is Gauguin? Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in 1848 in Paris, France, and died in 1903 in French Polynesia. Gauguin is considered to be a Post-Impressionist artist, though his work differs from the Post-impressionists by the unique colors that he used and the feelings he expressed in his paintings. Just like paintings by Van Gogh, who was a friend of Gauguin, the works of Gauguin are often recognizable from a distance. Gauguin was only a full-time artist during the last 20 years of his life. Until the crash of the French stock market and the art market in 1882, Gauguin was a successful stock and art broker, yearly making the equivalent of about $250,000 today. In 1891, he decided to move to Tahiti in French Polynesia where he stayed for two years. Upon his arrival, he created some of his famous paintings, like Hail Mary in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. After an unsuccessful return to France for two years, Gauguin returned to French Polynesia where he lived until his death.
Fun fact: This painting is featured in the book Origin (Amazon Link) by Dan Brown. In the book, the painting hangs in Casa Mila in Barcelona, which was a private house designed by Antoni Gaudí. The painting refers to the search for the existential questions of ‘where do we come from?’ and ‘where are we going?’. The painting by Gauguin does not answer these questions. Gauguin kept the painting and symbolism in this painting quite vague to stimulate the viewer to think about these questions. That has certainly worked for some people in Dan Brown’s book as some characters are actively looking for the answers to these questions.