The first I knew of Degas was seeing his statue of a young dancer. I remember that the thing that drew my eye first was her skirt, because it was real, made of fabric. Then I noticed her ribbon, and then the dancer herself, the way she stood, her attitude. I was probably about nine or ten at the time and ever since, even though I enjoy his other work, Degas and dancers have always gone together in my imagination.
The interesting thing is that this young dancer was not typical of the work that Degas showed in public. In fact, she was the only one of his statues he exhibited, and much of the reaction was both fierce and negative. She was too lifelike, she was shown under glass like a specimen, she was ugly… What she certainly was was a challenge to the accepted ideas of how sculpture should be done.
The original statue of “The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer” was made of wax – a wax with a flesh-coloured tint that made her skin look amazingly lifelike. She wore a real bodice as well as a skirt (or tutu), real stockings and shoes and a real ribbon in her hair. Her hair was made of horsehair; the ribbon in it was one Degas had been given by the model, Marie von Goethem. Everything except the ribbon and skirt he covered in wax, integrating them into the statue.
Degas did not stop creating sculpture, but the rest of his sculptures he kept to himself, using them, it seems, almost like three dimensional sketches to help him ‘see’ the movements and gestures of horses and people.
It is also interesting that the Little Dancer is one of the very few statues of which a plaster cast was made before the artist’s death, and that the colours of the original wax statue were recorded on the plaster cast. Perhaps it was as Degas intended that the plaster cast was later used to make the bronzes we see in different museums now. The bronze statues were patinated (chemical solutions were used, with heat or cold, to create colors) to represent the original colours recorded on the plaster, and each museum puts a different skirt on the particular bronze of the Young Dancer it exhibits.
There is so much more to the statue of the Little Dancer than I knew when I first saw her. And later, of course, I came to know that the Little Dancer, intriguing as she is, is only a part of Degas’s wonderful work. She was my introduction, but I hope that like me you’ll enjoy exploring more of his work. Here is some of it, in the slideshow below by cjmcqueen.