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 153 of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
What do you see? Two people are shown in a bedroom. On the right is a man standing against the door with his legs wide and his hands in his pocket. He is standing in the darker part of the room, and you can see his large shadow on the door. On the left, is a woman kneeling down. She is partially undressed, and the lamp behind her lights her white dress. The woman is facing away from the man, and she may be crying. Behind the woman is a round table with a lamp on it and a sewing box with a piece of clothing inside. On the floor lays a white corset. The single bed is neatly made up with the woman’s hat and a cloak at the foot end. The wall is decorated with wallpaper with pink flowers on it. In the background is a fireplace and above it hangs a mirror. On the left, you can see the top hat of the man on top of a closet. Above the top hat hangs a map on the wall.
Backstory: After painting this work, the painting remained in the studio of Degas for about 36 years, until he put it up for sale in 1905. Before that, only a few friends of Degas had seen this painting. The interpretation of this painting is open to quite some debate and no consensus has been reached. This uncertainty adds to the appeal of the painting. Degas captures a specific moment in time, with little indication of the past and the future, which makes it harder to interpret this painting. Degas did this more often early in his career. Another example of such a painting is Women Ironing in the Norton Simon Museum. It is likely that Degas kept the meaning of Interior vague on purpose and all he ever mentioned about this work was that it was a genre painting with the title ‘Interior’. Especially during the period in which this painting was created, Degas wanted to challenge existing norms and may, therefore, have enjoyed creating a painting with an ambiguous interpretation.
Interpretation: One of the earlier interpretations of this painting is about rape, and that is why this painting is also known as ‘The Rape’. According to this interpretation, the girl is a worker and the man is her boss. The girl has just been raped and is crying, while the man is standing against the door overthinking his deed and showing some remorse (some say that there are traces of blood on the bed which would support this interpretation). However, this interpretation is not accepted by many. Over time, art historians have searched for various literary sources that could have inspired this painting. However, while some literary sources match some aspects of the painting, none of them are truly consistent with this painting. One of the most convincing of these interpretations is that this painting depicts the wedding night for the couple in the room. However, one year before the wedding they have murdered the former husband of the woman, and in this painting, they are overwhelmed by the feeling of how bad that was.
Who is Degas? Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas (1834-1917), better known as Edgar Degas, was born in Paris. He was both a painter and a sculptor and more than half of his works are related to dance. One such example is The Ballet Class in the Musée d’Orsay, and another is his statue of The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer in the National Gallery of Art. Together with painters like Cézanne, Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir, he is one of the founders of impressionism. His works often have some complex psychological meaning. Later in his career, he became a specialists in depicting movement in his works. He learned painting at an early age, and when he was 21, he met Ingres, who stimulated him to go for an artistic career. He started by copying some details of the works of some famous Renaissance painters, like Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian, but gradually developed his own style. At the beginning of his career, he was an impressionist, but his style evolved into realism. He was also an art collector and was particularly fond of the works of Daumier, Delacroix, and Ingres.
Fun fact: One of the hobbies that Degas developed in the 1880s was photography. He made and collected photos which he used as inspirations for his paintings. While photography was only invented at the beginning of the 19th century, Degas already used a ‘photographic’ style in some of his earlier work. His Interior painting, for example, is comparable to a photograph, as he captures a single moment in time and does not include many clues on what happened before and after the picture. As discussed, this leaves the interpretation of the painting open for discussion. It is therefore not surprising that Degas later got very interested in photography.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.