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The Little Dancer by Degas


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#1 moira lawry

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Posted 31 May 2002 - 12:34 PM

An American ballerina just visited me here in London and we went to see the Degas sculpture of The Little Dancer in the Tate Museum of Modern Art.

Before I make any criticism of the bronze girl, I must say that I find her delightful and delicate and lovely. My question concerns ballet technique at the time of Degas and/or the developmental age of the girl.

This little dancer is all off balance. She is in fourth position, and her center of gravity is behind her back foot. It is almost as if she must balance herself by jutting out her front foot. Her shoulders are held too high andd too far back, and with too much tension, even considering the tension created by locking the hands together with straight arms behind the back. She is facing too far upwards. Her left leg is turned out at the foot, but the rest of the leg is forward-facing, so that when you look at the statue from the front, the left leg looks grotesque. I realize that she is at rest, but I wonder why Degas sculpted her. Has anyone seen the other sculpture of the Little Dancer? Is it like this one? What about his paintings and drawings?

What was technique like back then? How much was a child that age supposed to be able to do technically?

#2 Pamela Moberg

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Posted 31 May 2002 - 02:57 PM

Oh, you really brought memories back to me!
As a child I was a pupil at the Theatre School of the Gothenburg
Theater. In the foyer there was a replica of the Degas statue, standing about two feet high.
Yes, I do agree with you, not so academically correct. I remember that the students talked about her bad stance - potbelly and all - and said that if we did stood like that in the classroom we would have been thrown out.
Somewhere, there should be a photo of me at age 14, holding on to the statue for balance while I was doing a rather fine penchee-
I was in the costume for fandango girl in Marriage of Figaro (my debut) and I was then rather proud of myself. But where is that photo now? :confused:

#3 Mel Johnson

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Posted 01 June 2002 - 07:04 AM

I don't know whether the Little Dancer was modeled in the artist's studio, ergo flat floor, or in a nineteenth century dance studio, ergo raked floor. If she were in the former, she would be compensating for the difference between the dance floor and the flat floor of the artist's studio. If she were on a raked surface, the artist would compensate for her, placing her balance unnaturally far back, even by nineteenth century standards. Also, the viewer must remember, Degas was an Impressionist, and photographic reality was not a high priority with him.

If I recall correctly, and my memory is often faulty, the model for the dancer was named Solange Schwartz, or perhaps she only contributed the old-fashioned practice clothes for the sculpture.

#4 moira lawry

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Posted 01 June 2002 - 10:21 PM

From reading your description, I am sure that she was on a raked stage when Degas sculpted her. I'll have to go back and take a look at her and hold my head at an angle. What was the angle of the stage at the time?

This reminds me of a Cycladic statue in the Art Institute. It was my impression that it was tilted incorrectly, that the plane of the face and arms should be vertical. You'd think that art museums would know about stuff like this, wouldn't you?

#5 Estelle

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Posted 02 June 2002 - 02:29 AM

Mel, there was indeed a Paris Opera Ballet dancer called Solange Schwarz, but I doubt it was her who was Degas's model: she was born in 1910 (she eventually became a principal dancer, created several important Lifar works, and died a few years ago), and I think that Degas' statue was made much earlier. But she was from a family of dancers, for example her aunt Jeanne was a prominent POB dancer too, so perhaps it was another Schwarz?

Next season, the POB ballet master Patrice Bart will create a ballet called "La petite danseuse de Degas" at the POB, based on the life of Degas' model. I don't remember well the few things I had read about it, but will try to find some information.

I remember seeing (but it was long ago) a statue of young dancer by Degas in a Paris museum, I think it was the musee d'Orsay but am not sure. So it seems that there are several copies of that statue, or several statues with similar themes.

#6 Estelle

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Posted 02 June 2002 - 02:44 AM

I found some information on the following page:
http://www.buehrle.c...ang=f&id_pic=50

it doesn't mention the original model, but it includes a photograph.

Also there's some information (in French) at the end of the following page:

http://www.musee-ors...d7?OpenDocument

It says that the model which is shown in the Musée d'Orsay is a bronze statue made after Degas' death after an original version in wax which is shown in a US museum (probably the one you saw?) and that, when it was shown in 1881, it caused a scandal because of its "real" hair, costume and shoes, and that some critics found that the girl's forehead and its lips showed her "deeply vicious character" (!).

#7 Mel Johnson

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Posted 02 June 2002 - 03:55 AM

Estelle, thanks for your clarification regarding Solange Schwarz - perhaps I read something she wrote about the "Petite Danseuse". I do recall that she was somehow connected to its history, so maybe it was a relative who modeled the statue.

As to the display of the wax model, it was a fairly commonplace practice in the nineteenth century for sculptors to exhibit "works in progress". (Just think of Bartholdi displaying parts of the Statue of Liberty before he assembled the final version.) The silly critical remarks have a lot more to do with American xenophobia and less with sound criticism, and also reflect the Victorian fascination with physiognomy, which was an outgrowth of phrenology. (It pretended it could read your character and tell your future by the bumps on your head!)

And Moira, you would be astonished about what art museums don't know about arts which are not in their disciplines! A description of George Washington in uniform by an art historian has provided me with years of pleasure as he named every piece of military ironmongery back to the pharaohs, and identified each piece as being a part of Washington's eighteenth-century clothing.

#8 atm711

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Posted 03 June 2002 - 10:54 AM

Anatole Chujoy in his 'Dance Encyclopedia' has the following brusque entry about Degas:

"French painter of the Impressionist School who painted many and unflattering pictures of ballet dancers......."

#9 Estelle

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Posted 03 June 2002 - 12:08 PM

Mel, I don't understand well your comment about "American xenophobia". It was French critics who were so harsh with Degas' sculpture (from what I've read, it seems that it shocked partly because it was "too realistic"...) And yes, it probably was a period when physiognomony was fashionable.
Probably also it was a period when ballet dancers had rather bad reputations (with greedy old men going to the foyer de la danse, etc.) and so the "petits rats" weren't well considered either?

Actually, several of Degas' paitings aren't especially flattering...

#10 Mel Johnson

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Posted 03 June 2002 - 01:46 PM

American critics had at the poor "Petite Danseuse", too, saying that the features and carriage suggested incipient immorality! The poor "petits rats" were thought of by these men, led by a puritan named Anthony Comstock, as trollops-in-training!

#11 balletmama

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Posted 03 June 2002 - 07:32 PM

I enjoy visiting the cast of this sculpture that is at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA, and I have a huge poster of it in my office. My understanding is Degas was really seeking to make the little dancer look like an animal. This was a visual pun on the fact that, as Estelle reminds us, the students were known as "les petits rats" and had lifestyles considered questionable, but also I remember reading (speculation?) that Degas was interested in the ideas of Darwin. Here are some comments at the Joslyn Art Museum (Omaha) website:

START QUOTE: The original Little Dancer caused a furor when first exhibited in 1881. Made of tinted wax and dressed in real clothes, the sculpture outraged many viewers' sense of propriety. One critic railed: "Wishing to present us with a statuette of a dancer, he has chosen amongst the most odiously ugly.... Oh, certainly, at the very bottom of the barrel of the dance school, there are some poor girls who look like this monster.... but what good are they in terms of statuary? Put them in a museum of zoology, of anthropology, of physiology, all right: but in a museum of art, really!" This hostility was, however, very much to the point, as Degas was clearly using the sculpture to question accepted ideas of art. Joris-Karl Huysmans, a generally more sympathetic critic observed: "The terrible truthfulness of this statuette is a source of obvious discomfort... all their notions about sculpture, about that cold, inanimate whiteness, those memorable stereotypes replicated for centuries, are demolished. The fact is that, on first blow M. Degas has overturned the conventions of sculpture." With its incorporation of ordinary materials there is a good argument for making Degas' "first blow" the first modern sculpture.

The only sculpture exhibited by Degas in his lifetime, the wax version of the Little Dancer was in poor shape when unearthed in his studio after his death. Over twenty bronze versions were cast by the Paris master founder Adrien A. Hébrard under the authority of the estate, which were also "dressed" with a ribbon and tutu. To judge from the high quality of the detail in Joslyn's plaster, it is most likely that it was the successful prototype for the bronze edition. END QUOTE

After showing the wax sculpture in the 1881 Impressionist exhibition and getting blasted by the critics, Degas never again showed any of his sculptures publicly.

Degas is not the favorite artist of many feminists, many of whom see his approach to women as primarily voyeuristic and hostile; others see his women subjects more positively, as engrossed in their activity, unaware or uninterested in a male viewer's point of view.

Little Dancer, Age 14 was cast in bronze after Degas' death. Somehow I have the sense that Mary Cassatt, his good friend on and off, was involved in getting this to happen, but my memory may be playing tricks on me. I know Cassatt was enormously impressed with his sculpture.


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