Degas' Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

Degas' Little Dancer Aged Fourteen:
The earlier version that helped spark
the birth of modern art

By Gregory Hedberg
ARNOLDSCHE Art Publishers
312 pages, $135

From the publisher: "The wax figure Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, located today in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is the most well-known sculptural work by the French artist Edgar Degas (1834–1917).

"The rediscovery of a hitherto largely unknown plaster version is turning our current understanding of the ‘fourteen-yearold dancer’ on its head. Art historian Gregory Hedberg presents original source materials as well as technical examinations which verify that the Little Dancer plaster was cast prior to the extensive reworking of the wax sculpture by the artist after 1903. The supporting physical and documentary evidence includes, among other things, Degas’ preliminary drawings for the Little Dancer, X-rays of the revised wax figure and contemporary writings. In total, the empirical evidence enables one to conclude that the plaster records the original pose, bodice, leggings and hairdo of Degas’ wax figure as would have been seen in Paris in 1881.

"Contrary to the existing, now contraposto wax figure, the original version took on a symmetrical, iconic pose. A representation of a young ‘opera rat’ as a classical immortal – therein lies the real scandal, according to Hedberg. This would also explain why, for instance, Joris-Karl Huysmans deemed Degas’ work in 1881 the ‘only “truly modern” attempt I know of in sculpture’, and why the work put James Whistler in a near trance.

"Presented on 312 pages and in over 380, often large-format, illustrations Dr Hedberg reveals how Degas’ ‘fourteen-yearold dancer’ contributed to the birth of modern art. Displayed in a vitrine, which emphasised the frontal and profi le views, the sculpture proved to be a key catalyst for the post-1881 fl ourish of rigid frontal and profi le views of fi gures that fl attened the pictorial space in paintings by such avant-garde artists as James Whistler, Édouard Manet, John Singer Sargent and, in particular, Georges Seurat.

"The influence of Degas’ sculpture on the development of the fine arts in the twentieth century that has unfolded to the present day is also thoroughly investigated in the publication. When it comes to the ‘fourteen-year-old dancer’, it is a far more revolutionary work than the existing revised version and the subsequently cast, posthumous Hébrard bronzes suggest today."

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, cast before 1903, 39 in. (99 cm) high without base, plaster, private collection, United States. Photo: Joe Coscia, Jr.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, cast before 1903, 39 in. (99 cm) high without base, plaster, private collection, United States. Photo: Joe Coscia, Jr.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, 1878–81 (later reworked), yellow wax, hair, ribbon, cotton faille bodice, sat in shoes, muslin tutu, wood base, 38 15/16 in. (98.9 cm) high without base, Collections of Mr. ans Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C (1999.80.28). Photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, 1878–81 (later reworked), yellow wax, hair, ribbon, cotton faille bodice, sat in shoes, muslin tutu, wood base, 38 15/16 in. (98.9 cm) high without base, Collections of Mr. ans Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1999.80.28). (1999.80.28). Photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Edgar Degas, Three Studies of a Dancer, ca. 1878–81, black, pink and white pastel, on light brown blue laid paper, 18 13/16 x 25 in. (47.8 x 63.5 cm), Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York (2001.12). Photo: Graham S. Haber

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, cast ca. 1920–21, plaster, 39 1/8 in. (99.4 cm) high, gift of M. Knoedler & Co., Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebr. (1972.271). Photo: Larry Ferguson, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebr.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, cast ca. 1920–21, plaster, 39 1/8 in. (99.4 cm) high, gift of M. Knoedler & Co., Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebr. (1972.271). Photo: Larry Ferguson, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebr.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, cast before 1903, 39 in. (99 cm) high without base, plaster, private collection, United States. Photo: Joe Coscia, Jr.

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte—1884, 1884–86, oil on canvas, 81 3/4 x 121 1/4 in. (207.5 x 308.1 cm), Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, Art Institute of Chicago, Ill. (1926.224). Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago, Ill.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, cast before 1903, 39 in. (99 cm) high without base, plaster, private collection, United States. Photo: Joe Coscia, Jr.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, cast before 1903, 39 in. (99 cm) high without base, plaster, private collection, United States. Photo: Joe Coscia, Jr.

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