Size: 1030 x 488 x 482 mm
Signed: Numbered HC 1/4Stamped - Cire Perdue - C. Valsuani
Private collection, United Kingdom
Dr Gregory Hedberg, Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen – The earlier version that helped spark the birth of modern art, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, Stuttgart, 2016.
Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen), by Edgar Degas, depicts a young student of the Paris Opera Ballet school, a Belgian dancer named Marie van Goethem. The wax sculpture, found in Degas’s studio after his death in 1917, was cast in bronze over a forty odd year period beginning in 1922 at the Hébrard foundry (known as the Hébrard bronzes) until it went out of business in 1935 and then at the Valsuani foundry. The plaster cast (referred to as the Valsuani plaster) after its earlier incarnation was later found at the Valsuani foundry when the present bronze was cast. Dr Gregory Hedberg in Degas’s Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen: The earlier version that sparked the creation of modern art, demonstrates that not only is this a cast of the original 1881 wax sculpture, but that it was made in Degas’s lifetime sometime between 1881 and 1903 when the collector Louise Havemeyer saw the original wax in pieces in the artist’s studio. It was her desire to purchase it that led Degas to rework the wax, although Mrs. Havemeyer only acquired her bronze after the artist’s death.
Mrs Havemeyer’s description of the wax sculpture when she first saw it as “classic as an Egyptian statue” with dark woolly hair, and her “head slightly raised…”, also accords with contemporaneous descriptions of the wax when it was exhibited in 1881. Dr Hedberg demonstrates that Degas began work again on the sculpture after Havemeyer’s visit, and that the substantial changes he made are represented by the sculpture known so well today, from which the Hébrard bronzes were cast from 1922 onwards.
What is immediately striking about the present work is that it clearly represents descriptions of the sculpture both by those who commented on the wax when it was first exhibited in 1881 and by Havemeyer in 1903. There is nothing “Egyptian” about the original wax, now in the National Gallery Washington; it does not have dark, frizzy hair as described by Havemeyer, and is markedly different from the drawing studies. These show a young girl with well-muscled legs, and her hair in a neat coil, as in the 1881 plaster. Most notably she stands firmly balanced in a full frontal position with her head slightly tiled upwards as opposed to in a contrapposto pose, with her head more overtly tilted, as in the Hébrard bronze and in a way that compares directly with ancient Egyptian models.
The Valsuani plaster and bronzes have the same rigid upper body as Egyptian sculptures and it is this which was particularly noted in 1881 when commentators remarked on its “Egyptian characteristics” (as did Mrs Havemeyer). Degas as a young man had copied Egyptian wall paintings and in the late 1870s and early 1880s there was a new “Egypt mania” while Degas’s friends remarked on his knowledge of Egyptian art. The only asymmetrical feature of Egyptian sculpture was the placement of one leg ahead of the other, but with the weight of the torso balanced evenly, and therefore quite different to the contrapposto pose of European portraiture in painting and sculpture from the Renaissance onwards. This is one of the most striking characteristics of the present bronze. The narrowing coil of the dancer’s hair also recalls the narrow spiral of hair on the back of many Egyptian sculptures and seen in wall paintings.
This work is endorsed by the Degas heirs and the Comité Degas.
Note on Degas bronze castings
The process of casting in Degas’s time began with a plaster mould made from the original wax, with a plaster figure cast from that mould. This plaster was then used to make the mould from which the bronzes were cast – the first plaster from the wax as it appeared in 1881 was used to create the present bronze. The original wax (now in the National Gallery, Washington DC) was then altered substantially by Degas – the plaster used to make the mould from which the Hébrard bronzes were made was created after the artist’s death in 1922 (patinated to resemble bronze, it is now in the Joslyn Museum, Omaha, Nebraska). All the bronzes made from Degas waxes were cast posthumously. One of the Hébrard bronzes recently sold at Sotheby’s in 2015 for $24.9 million.