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The Hidden Story of Degas's Bronze Ballerinas

You’re probably familiar with Edgar Degas’ vibrant oils and pastels that captured the dynamic allure of countless ballerinas, but did you know the artist also enshrined these graceful dancers in hundreds of sculptural works? Though he kept most of them hidden in his studio, Degas exhibited one of these dancer sculptures in 1881—the only sculpture he would publicly show in his lifetime—and was faced with uproarious controversy. Let’s take a closer look at the many facets and hidden stories behind Degas’s most iconic subject.


Arabesque on Right Side by Edgar Degas.

From behind-the-scenes moments in dressing rooms to elaborate stage performances, Degas became obsessed with capturing every aspect of the ballet, highlighting the women who practiced and perfected it. As one of the leading members of the Impressionists, Degas sought to harness fleeting moments and everyday experiences into his work, and his study of dancers allowed him to render modern life and bodies in motion like no other artist of this period.

Always striving to experiment and innovate, Degas turned to sculpture near the end of his life, as yet another medium in which to explore his gestural, animated aesthetic. Hundreds of original wax sculptures were housed in his studio, evidence of the artist’s love for experimentation. Cast in bronze by Degas’ followers, these energetic works now grace museums worldwide and have captivated audiences for over a century, cementing Degas as an unmatched artistic innovator and renegade.

The Dance Class by Edgar Degas. 1874.

The Dance Class by Edgar Degas. 1874. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Edgar Degas: The Painter of Ballerinas

Born in Paris in 1834, Edgar Degas initially pursued a career in law but soon discovered his passion for art. He enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts and began his artistic journey, exploring various subjects and techniques. However, it was his fascination with the world of dance beginning in the 1870s that would become his career-defining focus.

Degas's interest in ballet stemmed from his close association with the Paris Opéra Ballet, one of the world's premier dance companies. He frequented the Paris Opéra for years, where he observed rehearsals, performances and behind-the-scenes preparations. Degas was captivated by the grace, elegance and discipline of the dancers, and he quickly became obsessed with replicating their movement in his art.

Ballet at the Paris Opéra by Edgar Degas. 1877
Ballet at the Paris Opéra by Edgar Degas. 1877. The Art Institute of Chicago.

La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze: An Icon of Art History

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Edgar Degas. 1878-1881

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Edgar Degas. 1878-1881. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
One of Degas's most iconic and controversial ballerina works is La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze, a wax sculpture depicting a fourteen-year-old dancer that now resides at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Created between 1878 and 1881, the sculpture caused a sensation when Degas exhibited it at the sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881, both praised and rebuked for its life size-like appearance, uncanny realism and unconventional use of materials.

Not only were Degas’s techniques groundbreaking, but his choice of subject was a challenge to the French academy and bourgeois society. The teenager depicted is Marie van Goethem, the daughter of a Belgian tailor and a laundress, whose working-class background was common among the students of the Paris Opéra school, but extremely uncommon for the subject of Salon sculpture.

Degas’s representation of this “petit rat de l’opéra” (little rat of the opera)—a common term used to describe the young ballerinas who often scurried across the stages— is deeply poignant, as Marie holds her head high and strikes a dignified fourth position despite her difficult circumstances. Degas also used real hair for the dancer’s wig and fabric for her costume to bring her haunting presence to life. Despite its shaky initial reception, the enduring legacy of La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze upholds Degas as an inspiring visionary who pushed the boundaries of artistic expression and challenged conventional norms.

Dancer Looking at the Sole of her Right Foot by Edgar Degas. 1910-1911 (posthumously cast).

Dancer Looking at the Sole of her Right Foot by Edgar Degas. 1910-1911 (posthumously cast). Tate Modern.
Upon his death, Degas’ heirs discovered hundreds of wax and wire sculptures in his studio that went unexhibited during the artist’s lifetime. In the ensuing decades, they posthumously cast around 70 of these sculptures in bronze, including several versions of La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze, marveling at their gestural expression and emotional beauty. Today, these bronzes are part of countless prestigious museum collections worldwide and are extraordinarily rare finds on the market.
Dancer Fastening the String of Her Tights by Edgar Degas.

Edgar Degas’s Artistic Legacy

The Star by Edgar Degas. 1879-81.

The Star by Edgar Degas. 1879-81. The Art Institute of Chicago.
Edgar Degas's impact on the history of art and the visual representation of dance is immeasurable. His pioneering compositional techniques and unconventional subject matter paved the way for future generations of artists to explore and blur the lines between art and life.

He garnered critical success and acclaim during his lifetime, and his legacy has been shaped by the critical work of esteemed art historians such as Richard Kendall, who has published extensively on Degas's life and work. Today, major museums proudly collect and display massive holdings of Degas's work, including the Musée d'Orsay, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who owns perhaps the most famous bronze version of La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze.

Until he died in 1917, Degas spent his long and prodigious career analyzing movement, space and gesture, always aiming to absorb his audiences in the emotion and essence of a moment. His iconic depictions of ballet dancers, no matter their medium, continue to inspire and enchant us with their zealous spirit and transcendent energy.


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