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  • Writer's pictureVan Weyenbergh Fine Art

Degas "Little Dancer": analysis of a masterwork.

No painter has represented the motif of the Opera in such a profoundly original way. Back to this famous dancer by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), sometimes considered ugly, sometimes disturbing by his contemporaries.

In more ways than one, The Little Dancer of fourteen, made in wax between 1875 and 1880, stood out in Degas' production. While most of the 150 wax and clay sculptures he produced remained almost unknown during his lifetime, this one was in fact shown at the 6th impressionist exhibition of 1881, organized at the Durand-Ruel gallery, boulevard des Capucines in Paris. She hardly went unnoticed.

More real than life iself

The artist has pushed the search for truth to an unprecedented degree. In essence, the young dancer, whose model has been identified (Marie van Goethem, a pupil of the Paris Opera ), is represented in a usual posture rest, chin raised, arms outstretched and hands crossed behind, feet in the fourth position. Originally, it was modeled in wax, with coloring and texture effects aimed at imitating human skin, while she wore fabric accessories (tulle tutu, satin bustier, dance shoes, ribbon) and even a hair wig.

Modernity and scandal

The astonishing mention of her age in the title undoubtedly contributes to this research of reality, the cause of the "uneasiness" that the writer and critic Joris-Karl Huysmans experienced when he discovered it. Amid the praise of his fellow artists, certain critics were remarkably acerbic, including that of Paul Mantz, who, in Le Temps, then deemed it disturbing, formidable because it is without thinking, moving with a cheeky beastly face or rather her little snout. And to wonder: " Why is she so ugly? Why is her forehead, which her hair half covers, already like her lips, marked with such a profoundly vicious character? "

Degas casts out the many prejudices then current about ballerinas and the universe of the show in general, where the world mix, allegedly at the expense of morality. The artist here rejects any idealization, favoring the physical presence of the figure - in this lies all the cheekiness - and thus tending to the society of his time an uncompromising mirror .


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