DEGAS: A PASSION FOR PERFECTION A Tale of Two Dancers – Myths dismissed

19 Oct DEGAS: A PASSION FOR PERFECTION A Tale of Two Dancers – Myths dismissed

To commemorate the centenary of the death of Edgar Degas, Degas: A Passion for Perfection – an exhibition of sculptures, paintings and drawings by the artist, has opened at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Among the many masterpieces in this exhibition, one of the most popular will be the Hébrard posthumous bronze sculpture of Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, lent by the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.

Like many of Degas’s prints, however, this iconic work exists in two states. There is not only the version on exhibition in Cambridge, but another version, recorded by a Degas bronze on exhibition at Stair Sainty Gallery, London.  The Stair Sainty bronze was cast from a recently discovered  plaster, made between 1881 when the wax was first exhibited, and 1903 when the American collector, Louisine Havemeyer, wanted to acquire the wax for her own collection.

After careful study, a leading expert on Degas’s sculpture has concluded the plaster used to cast the Sainty bronze does indeed record  an earlier state of Degas’s original wax, while the Hebrard bronzes, like the one now on view in Cambridge, records a later, second state.  [See “Did Degas Make This Plaster?  A Leading Expert Now Says Yes” The New York Times, September 13, 2016.]

There are a number of notable differences between the two states, as explained in Dr Gregory Hedberg’s brilliant monograph, Degas’s Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. This publication examines in detail the genesis of this famous sculpture, Degas’s working methods, and its influence on contemporary art as well as detailing the many differences between the two versions. The discovery of the original plaster from which the bronze on exhibition in this gallery was cast, has given rise to widespread discussion and misinformation.



*It has been suggested that Degas could not change the pose of his original Little Dancer wax because inside the figure is a rigid, air-dried clay base.

The Little Dancer plaster (from which the Sainty bronze was cast) does record a slightly different pose, but this was largely accomplished by moving wax from one side of the figure’s hips to the other (thus causing the central armature to be off centre– see top arrow figure 1). Once re-heated, wax can be easily moved around a sculpture, even long after the figure was initially “finished.”  The hip area was also pushed back slightly.  This slight alteration apparently caused some cracks in the clay base inside the figure. Indeed, recent X-radiographs of the original Little Dancer wax reveal deep cracks at the ankles and knees of this inner cast clay base. See arrows Figure 1.

Figure 1: Radiograph of Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, frontal view, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (from Edgar Degas Sculpture, National Gallery of Art, 2010, 118, fig. 3).

*It has also been proposed that Degas could not have changed the pose of his figure even slightly, because it would have been impossible to move the central, hollow lead armature. However, Degas did not need to move the armature to change the figure’s pose – instead, as noted, he removed wax from her proper right thigh and added it to the left. The main armature thus remained unchanged.


If the armature recorded by the X-radiograph (figure 1) is placed over a photograph of the original plaster from which the Stair Sainty bronze is cast, it is exactly central to her torso and extends down the centre of each leg (see figure 2). This is what one would expect the artist to do, using the armature as the central support for both the body and the legs. On the Hébrard bronzes, like the one on view now in Cambridge, the armature almost pierces the figure’s proper right hip.

The smooth outline of the figure’s proper right hip on the plaster also differs from the deep indentation found on the Hebrard bronze. In Degas’s preliminary drawing in the Morgan Library one finds the same smooth outline recorded by the plaster (see arrow, figure 2 right).

Figure 2 (left): Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, overlay by Eliot Goldfinger. The outline of the plaster is in black, while the Hébrard bronze version is in red. The position of the 1/2 inch hollow lead pipe armature inside the wax today is recorded in green. The plaster and Hébrard bronze outlines were traced from photographs, while the armature was traced from a radiograph of the National Gallery’s wax (fig. 1).

(right): Edgar Degas, detail, Three Studies of a Dancer, ca. 1878–81, black and pink chalk heightened with white chalk on blue paper faded to light brown, (see Part I, fig. 16), Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. Gift of a foundation in honor of Eugene and Clare Thaw (2001.12).

*It has been suggested that the near-blonde wig on the wax today was the original wig on the wax in 1881. Therefore, the Little Dancer plaster and the Stair Sainty Degas bronze which shows a different wig, could not record an earlier state of the wax.

The wig on the wax today is covered with the same type of wax found elsewhere on the figure but\ this does not indicate the wax covering the wig was there in 1881.  When heated, wax can easily be moved around a wax figure even years after it was exhibited. Moreover, an X-radiograph of the original wax shows a large hole at the back of the figure’s head with cut wires.  See figure 3. This suggest the wig at the back of the figure’s head was changed at some point, as indicated by the lifetime plaster and the Sainty bronze.

Figure 3: Radiograph of the head of Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, (from Edgar Degas Sculptures, National Gallery of Art, 2010, 121, fig. 11).

*It has been erroneously asserted that plaster expands 1.5% when it sets and therefore a plaster must be 1.5% larger than the original model from which it was cast.   Except for some elements that were changed, the Little Dancer plaster from which the Stair Sainty bronze is cast is the same size as the original wax. Therefore, it has been claimed that the plaster does not record Degas’s original wax.

Numerous studies have concluded that common casting plaster does expand when it sets, but only about 0.2%. Moreover, when plaster sets inside a mold, the negative mould prevents it from expanding. This assures that every detail of the original model is reproduced exactly. Because plaster cannot expand beyond the limits of the closed mold, the final plaster should be the same size as the original wax (as is the case of the plaster used to cast the Stair Sainty Little Dancer bronze).


The measurement comparisons that record that the plaster being the same size as the original wax therefore indicate the plaster was cast from the wax.


*It has been proposed that Degas would never consider having his Little Dancer wax sculpture cast in bronze, and therefore would not have allowed a plaster to be made. A plaster cast from a wax is typically the first step in casting a bronze.

Some scholars have claimed that Degas never wanted any of his wax sculptures to be cast in bronze, yet in 1903, when Mrs Havemeyer sought to acquire the original Little Dancer wax, Degas himself offered to cast it in bronze.


When Mrs. Havemeyer rejected Degas’s proposal of a bronze cast of his Little Dancer, Degas then moved his Little Dancer sculpture to his working studio and reworked the wax.  Fortunately, at some point before the wax was reworked, Degas allowed a plaster to be made of his famous sculpture. 



*Contemporary descriptions of the costume and wig on the Little Dancer wax when it was exhibited in 1881, as well as details in Degas’s own preliminary drawings, do not match details of the wax today.

In 1881, Degas Little Dancer had a real horse-hair wig at the back of the figure’s head, a bodice and tutu make of real fabric, as well as real ballet shoes and hair ribbons.  Therefore one would expect that such a realistic wax figure made by the perfectionist Degas to also have leggings made of real fabric, as a critic indicated in 1881. 


Oddly, the wax today does not have real fabric leggings. At the knees there is some pinched wax to merely suggest real leggings.  On the other hand, fabric experts have determined that the legs of the bronze at Stair Sainty, cast from the lifetime plaster, record the imprint of real muslin leggings.


In 1881 the wax figure was described as wearing a cheap fabric bodice made of courtil; the wax today is wearing a commercially made bodice of a more expensive fabric long thought to be silk. The bodice on the Stair Sainty bronze shows the imprint of a muslin-like, courtil  fabric. It is different to the fancy bodice on the wax as it now appears, but akin to the working costume critics described in 1881.


A figure in Degas’s preparatory drawing in the Morgan Library (figure 6) also records the bodice placement akin to recorded by the Little Dancer plaster (fig. 5), but unlike the bodice on the wax today (as recorded by the Sainsbury bronze in Cambridge – figure 6).  The bodice on the plaster, like Degas’s drawing, has a deep décolleté and it extends to the figure’s abdomen, while in the Sainsbury bronze, the bodice is placed much higher up on the figure.  See arrows figures 4-6.

Figure 4(left): Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, plaster, private collection, United States.

Figure 5 (centre): Edgar Degas, detail left side, Three Studies of a Dancer, ca. 1878–81, black and pink chalk heightened with white chalk on blue paper faded to light brown, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. Gift of a foundation in honor of Eugene and Clare Thaw (2001.12).

Figure 6 (right): Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, Hébrard cast without tutu, bronze, 39 1/16 in. (99.1 cm), Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England.


In 1881, the wax figure was described as having a wig of black horse hair in a coil; while, in 1903, Mrs Havemeyer describes it as dark and woolly. However, the wax figure today has a loosely gathered hair piece made from thin, near-blonde human hair, which was then covered with dark wax to match the simulated hair modelled in wax on the top of the dancer’s head. Contemporary evidence indicates Degas’s model for the Little Dancer had dark brown, not blonde hair.


*Degas’s contemporaries also remarked on how his Little Dancer resembled an Egyptian figure

There is nothing “Egyptian” about the wax as it appears today, now standing in a classic contrapposto position. The lifetime plaster from which the Stair Sainty bronze was cast stands in a squarely balanced, forward facing pose that replicates the pose of ancient Egyptian sculptures. This square, forward facing pose is replicated in Degas’s preparatory drawings (see figure 5).

The Little Dancer’s hair in the lifetime plaster is gathered in a coil resembling the coils that extended down the backs of Egyptian sculptures (see arrows figures 7 and 9).  As noted, an X-radiograph of the head of the wax today (fig. 3) shows a large hole in the back with wires projecting that were surely intended to hold the original dark, horse hair wig. These wires were cut at some point and the present hair piece is held in place only by ribbon and wax pushed into the hole. This indicates that Degas changed the hair piece when he remodelled the wax, as recorded by the posthumous Hebrard bronzes of the figure (see arrow fig. 8)


Figure 7 (left): Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, detail, rear view, plaster, private collection, United States.

Figure 8 (centre): Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, detail rear view without tutu, bronze, Hébrard cast, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England

Figure 9 (right): Egyptian, Pepi I Kneeling, ca. 2275 B.C.E., rear view, 6 x 1 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. (15.2 x 4.5 x 9 cm), Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund (39.121).



The only counter thesis to the one proposed here  is that while Degas was alive, someone made a careful copy of the 1881 version of the Little Dancer sculpture, recording the original tilt of the head, shoulder height, muslin bodice, wig, and real fabric leggings. However, there is no documentary evidence to indicate Degas, or anyone else, ever made a careful wax copy of the first version of the Little Dancer and then, from that hypothetical wax copy (which, if ever made, is now lost) cast a plaster which was then ignored for decades.

Pursuit of Perfection

When in 1903 Degas began work once again on the wax of Little Dancer, which had lain unattended in a vitrine in his apartment for more than two decades, he repeated a practice he had followed throughout his career in returning to an earlier theme and rethinking his approach. If Mrs Havemeyer had not expressed a desire to purchase the work he might never have readdressed his wax figure, but in doing so with his eye sight failing, he paid less attention to anatomical detail than meeting the immediate challenge of presenting the sculpture in a way that reflected his own changing style.

Hence the dancer’s head leans back, perhaps in a more assertive fashion. Perhaps to eliminate blackened wax (a concern Degas expressed in 1903), surface details have been altered.  The figure’s collar bone has been flattened, and the wax covering her replacement bodice is less tooled, and more generously and roughly applied. Her hands no longer meet precisely in the centre of the small of her back and the modelling of her face and the exposed skin above her bodice and shoulders is no longer quite as smoothly modelled. He also pushed back her right arm so that now its junction to the right shoulder is anatomically incorrect.

In 1881, Degas’s ballerinas were carefully drawn with great attention to anatomy, reflecting his traditional training and his youthful admiration for the master draftsmen of earlier in the century. By the early 1900s, with his vision diminished, his priorities had changed and although his indifference to anatomical exactitude is largely disguised from the visitor to the Fitzwilliam exhibition by the tutu she is wearing, it remains the most obvious and notable difference between the two bronzes.

DEGAS: A PASSION FOR PERFECTION A Tale of Two Dancers – Myths dismissed was last modified: October 19th, 2017 by Guy