13 Apr Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: what did it look like when first exhibited?
The most direct evidence of the appearance of this iconic sculpture was a drawing, one of three on a single sheet, in which the young Marie van Goethem is presented from several different angles, including a full frontal image which shows her standing, facing forward with her weight evenly distributed on each leg. Her bodice has a low cut décolletage, and extends down to her navel, with her head only slightly tilted upwards. The other two drawings on the sheet show her from behind at slightly different angles, her arms stretched straight behind with her hands clasped lightly together. In one of the two her hair is partly plaited.
A second sheet of drawings also provides some clues – this has four images of the young dancer, two three-quarter length from behind, again with her arms extended behind and hands clasped, one waist length and showing Marie full-frontal and the other at a half angle, shoulder length. These are recognisably the same figure as in the other sheet and present her with her head slightly tilted upwards. Both sets of drawings present anomalies that cannot be readily reconciled with the wax sculpture now at the National Gallery, Washington, the plaster after it in the Joslyn Museum, Omaha, Nebraska or the thirty-seven bronzes cast posthumously from the latter plaster between 1922 and 1962.
We are also aided by contemporary descriptions of the wax sculpture when first exhibited and again when seen by the American collector, Louisine Havemeyer, in 1903. These describe the sculpture’s wig as made of real, black frizzy, horse hair, they note the attention to anatomical detail, the tights and real ballet shoes, the while bodice made of courtil, an inexpensive fabric from which practice bodices were typically made, and the tutu. Yet the wax on show today has a wig made of blonde human hair, the bodice is cut much higher and extends only to her stomach and is made of a different fabric, while her head is notably tilted upwards. Most disturbing is the stark difference between the drawing, which shows an outline of her thighs beneath her tutu, and the wax with the tutu removed – a large lump of wax has clearly been removed from her proper right thigh on to her left, pushing her weight on to her back leg but also crippling her as she would have walked with an obvious limp and could certainly have never danced.
These anomalies were for many years explained away by the descriptions being considered mistaken or simply ignored, as the historical importance of the sculpture and the poignant story of Marie van Goethem’s life and probably early death became the main focus of critics and commentators. The forthcoming exhibition “Degas: Little Dancer Rediscovered” provides a decisive solution to these questions.
Left – Bronze cast of Degas’s Little Dancer aged fourteen years, c.1922, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich
Right – Bronze cast of Degas’s Little Dancer aged fourteen years, c.1922, Sothebys