Degas’ Little Dancer Statue Reveals Prejudices of Times

The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer sculpture and Miss La La

Location: 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine, 1878/79 – 1882, point 10

Map of lower Montmartre Pigalle for the self-guided walk which guides you to artists’ studios, paintings and canteens. The walk is around the lower Montmartre - Pigalle area and includes sites associated with Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and the Montmartre jazz scene of the 1920s.
Walk 2, map of lower Montmartre – Pigalle ; route and points of interest of the Montmartre walking tour Montmartre Artists’ Studios. © OpenStreetMap contributors, the Open Database Licence (ODbL).

The apartment building where Degas created his Little Dancer sculpture

We next catch up with Degas at point 10, 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine where he was present from 1878 – 82. A metal information panel put up by the Mayor of Paris marks the spot. Nineteen Rue Pierre Fontaine is also a Toulouse-Lautrec site; Lautrec lived in this building five years after Degas had left.

A stencilled image of Toulouse-Lautrec and cane stands next to the top of the door of his apartment at 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine Montmartre. Window shutters, the street number 19 and a plaque which tells us that Toulouse-Lautrec lived here are also visible.
Point 10, 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine. Toulouse-Lautrec keeps an eye on you as you approach his front door. Degas also lived here but not at the same time as Lautrec.
An OpenStreetMap detail showing the route to point 10, 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine Paris 75009. Edgar Degas lived and worked here from 1878/79 – 1882.
An OpenStreetMap detail showing the route to point 10, 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine. Edgar Degas lived and worked here from 1878/79 – 1882. © OpenStreetMap contributors, the Open Database Licence (ODbL).

Degas’ studio was in the courtyard behind the apartment doors; he lived on the fifth floor. From the workshop in this building, Degas produced something special for the sixth Impressionist show in 1881: The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (also known as The Little Dancer). It was the only sculpture that he ever publicly exhibited.

Before we examine this important and controversial work, let’s look at a painting.

Miss La La at The Circus Fernando, Montmartre

Miss La La at The Circus Fernando in the National Gallery in London is Degas’ unique circus piece. It dates from 1879 and would have been painted here.

The circus performer Miss La La is dangling by her teeth above the spectators from near the roof of the Circus Fernando. Miss La La’s hands and feet are not attached to the rope from which she hangs. The ornate circus roof is visible behind her.
Miss La La’s teeth-only act at the Circus Fernando in Montmartre. (1) © Wikimedia Commons.

The action is taking place near the ceiling above the ring, among the showy stucco decorations and supporting wrought iron roof beams of the Montmartre Circus. Miss La La is suspended from a thin rope and — as her outstretched arms and dangling legs prove — her only contact with the rope is through her teeth. She hangs high above the audience.

Degas has used foreshortening to show that Miss La La is performing almost directly overhead.

The fact that Degas has placed her image to one side of the canvas allows us to admire the architecture of the ceiling of this famous building and to contemplate her situation. Here is a lone performer in a perilous position, suspended by her teeth with nothing else around her but a drum roll, gasps from the audience and thin air.

The Montmartre Circus used to be housed in a handsome round building. A well known landmark, a popular entertainment venue, a meeting point for generations and an important setting and source of inspiration for the artists of Montmartre. It was demolished in the 1970s.

An Infographic timeline which shows where Edgar Degas lived and worked, the dates he lived there and the major paintings to be associated with the addresses and the studios. All of these addresses are in Montmartre and all but one in the Pigalle area of Montmartre.
Edgar Degas’ studios, apartments and major works in the Pigalle area of Montmartre.

The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer sculpture

A bronze statuette of a ballet dancer assuming a rigid and contorted ballet pose. She wears a tutu, bodice and ballet shoes, she has real hair. Her face is upturned with a hint of defiance and pride in her expression.
The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer: Marie van Goethem assumes a rigid and contorted ballet pose. (2) © Wikimedia Commons.

Marie van Goethem the model for The Little Dancer

Marie van Goethem was an adolescent opera dancer who was Degas’ neighbour here. Degas regularly invited her to this studio to sit for him. The result of Marie’s sessions with Degas was a clothed wax sculpture of a ballerina of about three feet in height. It was this piece called The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (also known as The Little Dancer) which caused such a stir at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881. It was the first and last sculpture that Degas ever publicly exhibited.

Degas has portrayed Marie in a rigid, tortured ballet pose: her arms are braced behind her back, her head is lifted looking up, her feet are splayed, and her young legs are locked in an unnatural and tense position. Her body looks as though it should be aching with tension yet her expression seems unperturbed, even a little defiant. In her face we can see some pride in her mastery of a difficult and contorted pose. She is concentrated and is drawing on her inner strength and training.

Degas has chosen to show her realistically and he may even have exaggerated her features. She is not classically beautiful or refined; it is not known what Marie really looked liked like.

Degas dressed the wax figurine in real clothes

Degas had taken the unusual step of dressing his model in real clothes: she had hair, a ribbon, a tutu and dance slippers. Why did he dress her up? Opinions vary on his motives:

  • Did he wish to realistically depict her as a professional poised dancer?
  • Was Degas reinventing sculpture?
  • In the unnatural pose, was he criticising the too rigid ballet training regime for turning Marie into a lifeless ballerina doll?
  • Had he created a caricature of a dancer?
  • Both the Miss La La painting and the Little Dancer sculpture show female artists in difficult performance situations. Was Degas making an enlightened observation on the lack of choice and opportunity for women in his times?
  • Did he wish to provoke a reaction and cause a stir among ‘expert’ critical opinion?
  • Had he been spending too much time in the studio and lost the plot a little?

The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer stirs up the prejudices of the time

The reception the sculpture received was certainly mixed. Some critics appreciated the realism and modernity of the work. Others preferred to align themselves with the prejudices that they were comfortable with. In the spirit of the times they chastised Degas for depicting some vicious little riff-raff opera rat in an ungainly pose with degeneracy written all over her face.

Evolutionary theory, in their eyes, had legitimised the natural hierarchy of society locking the lower orders at the bottom of the pile. These critics, no doubt, would have seen themselves near the apex.

The sculpture is an expressive and forceful work; it is possible that the hostile reception was in reaction to Marie’s taught and tall expression of defiance and pride. In her control and poise she was getting above herself. Marie van Goethem was a ballet dancer at the Paris Opera. She had shown that through hard work and application it was possible to change and progress, defying the social theorists and their allies who helped to maintain the conservative order.

What was Degas’ reaction to the criticism of The Little Dancer?

He retreated to the studio to experiment with sculpture in private

Degas probably had little time for fools and he did not care for the opinion of experts but he did not like public ridicule either. He felt exposed by the criticism. The sixth Impressionist exhibition of 1881 was the last time he exhibited a sculpture. He took his little dancer back to his studio and it was never seen again in public during his lifetime.

Degas was fascinated by sculpted figurines of dancers and the sixth Impressionist show uproar did not stop him from experimenting with sculpture in the privacy of the workshop. In 1890 the Irish writer and painter George Moore saw “many decaying statues” when he called on the artist.

Degas’ sculpture helps bring physicality to his paintings

Degas continued to use sculpture as three dimensional notes to bring solidity and presence to his painted figures. With sculpted figurines he could explore a subject in the round on the very point of balance, frozen in a moment of precarious stability.

His painting influenced the sculpture and the sculpted pieces replied in a never ending fruitful dialogue. Degas was in fact so caught up in the conversation that it appears to have slipped out of his control. On his death in 1917 in his last address about 150 figurines were found, some falling to bits others “almost reduced to dust” as the art dealer Joseph Durand-Ruel noted.

Bronze copies of the wax original Little Dancer statue

The original wax figure is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Bronze copies of the work can be seen in various museums including the Orsay Museum in Paris. These copies were cast in the 1920s after Degas’ death.

Legacy

Whilst the hostile narrow-minded critics of the time and their half-baked social theory now rightly earn our disdain, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer remains one of Degas’ best known works and continues to this day to inspire creativity.

Some other notable works to be associated with this address are: The portrait of his friend Edmond Duranty in his library in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, The Star at the Art Institute of Chicago or The Dancer in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

 


All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1), (2).

(1) Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373, Edgar Degas, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(2) Edgar Degas artist QS:P170,Q46373, Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878-1881, NGA 110292, CC0 1.0