Monday, October 6, 2014
"Thanks to the generosity of Gallery benefactor Paul Mellon, the Gallery has the largest and most important collection of Degas's original wax sculptures, including the groundbreaking Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, one of the best-loved sculptures of all time," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "Well-known through more than 30 posthumous bronze casts displayed in museums around the world, the Gallery's wax version of Degas's famous sculpture is the only one that was formed by the artist's own hands and the only one he ever showed publicly."
The Gallery has the third largest collection of Degas works in the world, including 12 cast bronzes, one posthumously produced plaster, 19 paintings, 71 works on paper, and 52 original Degas works in wax, clay, and plaster.
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is be presented with 13 additional works that exemplify Degas's fascination with the practice and performance of ballet, including the monumental pastel Ballet Scene (c. 1907) and monotype The Ballet Master (c. 1874) from the Gallery's collection, and oil painting The Dance Class (c. 1873) from the Corcoran Gallery of Art. These works join the smaller statuettes Study in the Nude of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (c. 1878–1881) and Fourth Position Front, on the Left Leg (c. 1885/1890), each about two feet tall.
The exhibition also highlights the experimental, modern approach Degas took to his work. Degas did not carve sculpture but used an additive process. Little Dancer was modeled in wax over a metal armature, bulked with organic materials including wood, rope, and even old paintbrushes in the arms. It was then covered with clay and layers of pigmented wax. Degas further elevated the sculpture's realism by affixing a wig of human hair to the head and outfitting his ballerina in a cotton-and-silk tutu, a real bodice, and linen slippers.
The Ballet Master was likely the artist's first attempt at monotype, made in collaboration with his friend Viscount Ludovic Napoléon Lepic (1839-1889), who taught Degas this challenging printmaking technique, which produced only a single, lush impression of each image. Degas enhanced the print with white to create an effect of both dancer and ballet master emerging eerily from an inky darkness.
The exhibition features three other monotypes which Degas heightened extensively with pastel. Dynamic and vibrantly colored, they perfectly capture the luminous effect of the gas-lit stages. Degas frequently explored the dancers' world off-stage, depicting them at rehearsal or standing in the wings, awaiting the start of the performance. He was a keen observer and a wry but sympathetic chronicler of the daily life of the dancers he studied, even on occasion introducing a black-clad gentleman, an abonné (or subscriber), watching from an opera box or lurking behind the scenes as a potential "protector" of the young dancers.
In addition, the exhibition includes a portrait drawing of Degas by his friend, the artist Paul Mathey (1844–1929). In it Degas stands looking at a work of art in a posture loosely recalling that of his Little Dancer muse, arms behind his back, hands clasped.
Degas's Little Dancer is organized by the National Gallery of Art and curated by Alison Luchs, curator of early European sculpture.
Degas Sculptures: History and Research
Degas made sculpture throughout his life. Contemporaries record that when they visited his studio they were just as likely to find him modeling in wax and clay as they were to find him at the easel. Yet Degas's obsessive tendency to work and rework his sculptures destroyed some in the process and left others unfinished. Even the Little Dancer was subject to his whim. In 1880, though included in an exhibition program, the sculpture's case was left empty. When it was finally exhibited, the sculpture appeared two weeks late.
Many critics dismissed Little Dancer as "repulsive" and "a threat to society." They were accustomed to more traditional female subjects, such as goddesses, allegorical figures, or heroines from literature—not a contemporary, working-class girl in training for a profession with a risky reputation. (These petit rats de l'opéra, or "opera rats," were viewed by many at the time as subject to moral corruption.) Degas's unorthodox process and materials, which included human hair, silk ribbon, linen, rope, cork, cotton muslin, and silk tulle, provoked further objections. But Degas endowed his subject with humanity. Poised between girl and woman, the bony figure of the young ballerina is simultaneously vulnerable and proud. Shoulders back and her head held high, her posture is erect and dignified.
Recent discoveries by National Gallery of Art staff have contributed greatly to the understanding of the unconventional materials Degas used in making his sculptures. Through technical study by Shelley G. Sturman, head of object conservation, and Daphne S. Barbour, senior object conservator, as well as scientific analyses by Barbara H. Berrie, senior conservation scientist, Suzanne Quillen Lomax, organic chemist, and Michael Palmer, conservation scientist, it is now known that the artist formed most of his sculptures from such materials as pigmented beeswax and nondrying modeling clays. Degas usually built his own armatures from brass or galvanized-iron wires, and formed the sculptures over them, filling them with anything at hand—cork, paper, rope, and even discarded objects like the lid of a salt shaker or used paint brushes.
These research findings along with exhaustive art historical information on all Degas sculptures in the National Gallery of Art's collection were published in the landmark systematic catalog Edgar Degas Sculpture by Suzanne G. Lindsay, Shelley G. Sturman, and Daphne S. Barbour, published by the Gallery in 2010 and distributed by Princeton University Press.
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