Wax angry: The huge enigma of Degas’ Little Dancer
The Impressionist's wax figure of a ballerina incensed critics, although they couldn’t agree on the sculpture’s cardinal sin
Edgar Degas exhibited hundreds of paintings, drawings and prints, but only one sculpture. Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer was shown in Paris in April 1881, at the Sixth Impressionist Salon.
It’s the figure of a little girl, dressed for the ballet in a (real) muslin tutu and satin slippers. Her hair is lightly tied with a ribbon, her feet are loosely in fourth position. Degas created the statue from wax, a malleable substance that suited his working habits: He would destroy and rework his sculptures until they reached an acceptable state. Wax was also, as Camille Laurens describes in her newly translated book, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, “the substance that most closely resembled flesh”.
The girl’s skin, as she stood on her pedestal in the Salon, would have been deathly grey. In both its original wax form and the 22 bronze casts made after Degas’s death – now distributed in galleries around the world – the Little Dancer stands at just over 90cm tall. Degas’s model was Marie van Goethem, a trainee dancer at the Paris Opera (or “little rat”, as they were known) and she was only about 1.37m tall, so the sculpture is about two-thirds life size. As Laurens points out, sculptural scale was a hot topic in 1879. Two years before, Auguste Rodin had drawn criticism for taking moulds directly from his models’ bodies. Too mechanical, the critics said; lacking the sign of the artist’s intent.
Little Dancer was not a success, though the critics couldn’t agree on the sculpture’s cardinal sin. One said: “She’s so plain! I’d rather she were a rat at the Opera than a pussy in the brothel.” If this dig was a display of vitriolic wit – “better le rat than la chatte” – it also alluded to a connection that was well known: the Opera, where Van Goethem studied, also functioned as a subscribers’ brothel. The wealthier men would buy a quota of annual seats, for which they would be granted backstage access. They would then sponsor or protect “their” girls in return for certain favours. The age of consent in Paris had been 13 since 1863. Before that, it was 11.
To some, the sculpture’s obscure facial expression spoke of a girl who knew too much; Paul Mantz, reviewing the Salon for Le Temps, said that her face was “marked with the hateful promise of every vice”. Albert Wolff, Le Figaro’s arch-conservative critic, noted the similarity between her profile and the two Criminal Physiognomies sketches Degas showed alongside her.
Degas’s fraternity with the other “impressionists” (a label he hated) was already fraying at the seams, and this new, remorselessly factual sculpture was far from simpatico with the nearby works by Gauguin and Pissarro. He took Little Dancer home, refused to sell it, and never exhibited it, or any other sculpture, again.
The tetchiness of the critics was a little premature. For one thing, they too readily assumed that Little Dancer’s features corresponded to Van Goethem’s, or to those of another real girl. But what if, in fact, some aspects of her are pure invention, and the sculpture’s unpopular aspects – the poor poise of the feet, the scrunched-up expression, the suggestiveness of the dress – are less mistakes than creative choices?
The work sits oddly in sculptural tradition, too. For one thing, wax statues were two centuries out of fashion; for another, classical sculptures had more often been draped or naked than dressed. If Little Dancer had been a nude, like several of the preparatory sketches Degas made of Van Goethem, it would have been straightforwardly outrageous, a working girl daring to ape a nymph or goddess. Instead, Degas gave us the kind of body he saw every day. To many observers, this prosaic representation was a violence that their eyes didn’t deserve. Throughout contemporary reviews you find the same word pinned to Degas: A “cruel painter” (Paul Mantz in 1877); a “cruel and perceptive observer” (Félix Fénéon in 1886); his “attentive cruelty” (Joris-Karl Huysmans in 1889).
The critics’ discomfort reflects their frustration with a work that remains stubbornly hard to read: Little Dancer could be sexual, or sterile, or broken, or resilient. As Laurens says: “The sculpture provides no answer. Degas provides no answer.” But not answering, in its way, is an answer too; it’s a refusal to simplify. Little Dancer doesn’t respond to its critics’ charges, it reflects their own preoccupations. In doing so, it seems to defend a young woman’s privacy, her dignity, in a world determined and able to strip away such things.
The sculpture stoically resists the idea that a person can be read by sight alone. What makes this reading tricky to advocate is that Degas never showed much interest in women’s privacy or dignity. In his younger years he made a habit of saying things such as: “Art is a vice; you don’t marry it lawfully, you rape it.” At one party, he is said to have sidled over to the painter Berthe Morisot to regale her with his version of sweet nothings: A long commentary on Solomon’s proverb, “Woman is the desolation of the righteous”. He also claimed that his pastel nudes were meant “to show [women] without coquetry, in the form of animals cleaning themselves”.
We know nothing of Van Goethem’s experience modelling for Degas, but “cruelty” does mark others’ accounts. The longest is Degas and his Model, published in 1919 – two years after the artist’s death – and now translated into English for the first time. It relates in breezily diaristic form what Degas was like by the time he reached his mid-70s. Its author, “Alice Michel”, is a pseudonym. Its narrator, a model named Pauline, may or may not have existed in flesh and blood. (Although we know that three Paulines did model for Degas – Pauline Fournier, Pauline Lansart, Pauline Friese – their sittings are undated in his notes.)
Pauline, as she tells it, spent much of her time dodging Degas’s opinions. By this stage his lifelong anti-Semitism had reached a feverish pitch, fuelled by the Dreyfus affair. Every day he read La Libre Parole, an anti-Semitic tabloid, and the passing thought of a Jew made him scream about eradicating them all. Pauline sensibly hid the fact that one “Monsieur Blondin”, another artist for whom she modelled, was Jewish; Degas would have fired her if he knew.
That said, his rigid beliefs had their virtues. Artists in Paris would often behave as if their models were sexual toys. Degas would fret about other painters not “behaving properly” towards Pauline, although she remembers his compasses raking her skin as he measured her shape. Even as blindness set in, Degas refused to give up drawing. On one occasion, as he edged his way through a pencil sketch of her, Pauline recalled “the rapid movements he would’ve drawn with in the old days”, and welled up with pity.
Towards the end of her days as his model, he made a wax statuette of her, too (the tactility of wax helped him circumvent the blur where his vision had been). But, as with all the other statuettes he made bar Little Dancer, he would never be done with it. Eventually he stopped asking for Pauline. She never saw herself in wax.
• Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Camille Laurens (translated by Willard Wood) is published by Other. Degas and his Model by Alice Michel (translated by Jeff Nagy) is published by David Zwirner.
– © The Daily Telegraph