The Mystery of ‘The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer’

Degas: A New Vision” at the MFAH

“One must have a high opinion of a work of art — not the work one is creating at the moment, but of that which one desires to achieve one day. Without this it is not worthwhile working.” — Edgar Degas.

"The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer" by Edgar Degas.

“The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” by Edgar Degas.

I was about 7 years old when I first saw a painting by Degas. I randomly opened a book, probably attracted by its glossy jacket — my dad, an obsessive bibliophile, lined our little apartment with bookshelves — and was instantly mesmerized by a picture of a dancer. I felt as if I were sitting in a corner theatre box, right above the stage. The footlights made her figure appear ethereal, weightless, magical. She was like a fairy flying towards me from some fantasy land. Until this day, whenever I go to the ballet, I think of Degas and feel the same excitement as at the moment I laid my eyes on this picture.

Of course, now I know that there was a dark side to all this glamor and magic at the famous Opera in the 19th-centry Paris. Fairy-like dancers were just teenage girls who were working hard to help their families and hoping to find a “protector” — in other words, to become a mistress of a rich old man. Nowhere was this sordid reality conveyed more poignantly than in Degas’s famous sculpture, “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer.” The model was 14-year old Marie van Goethem, one of “les petits rats” (“little rats”), as the dancers in the corps de ballet were called at the time. A daughter of a tailor and a laundress (who also was a part-time prostitute), Marie did not pursue her dancing career for long and disappeared into the Parisian underworld.

This fall, I came face to face with Marie at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, at the exhibition “Degas: A New Vision.” It features nearly 200 works — paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, and sculptures — from public and private collections around the world and is the first major show of this great artist in the past 30 years.

Why did I choose to talk about “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer,” of all fantastic works that are showcased at this exhibition? Each gallery reveals a new facet of Degas’s genius, “The most modern artist among his contemporaries,” in the words of Gary Tinterow, Director of MFAH and a co-curator of the show.

Maybe because it is so unusual, so haunting, so perplexing, so unfathomable…. 135 years passed since the day it was revealed to the public, and it continues to shock, bewilder and amaze us.

It must be kept in mind that when we look at “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” today we don’t see it exactly as Degas intended. The artist executed his sculpture in wax, a highly perishable material. The original — a bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon — is safely locked up at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  There are 28 bronze replicas in museums and galleries around the world today. The one exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, comes from Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Brazil.

Bronze figures also differ from the original in the real items they are wearing. Degas dressed his dancer in a bodice, a muslin petticoat that dropped beneath her knees and ballet shoes and placed a wig of real hair tied with a pea-green ribbon on the head. Everything, except for the petticoat and the ribbon, was covered in wax. “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer’s” bronze cousins wear tutus, which vary in material from museum to museum, and hair ribbons.

But the expression on the girl’s face, her skinny frame and belligerent attitude are as unforgettable in the bronze replica as they are in the wax original. Bony and angular, her body frozen in an awkward pose, she looks like a gawky teenager, not an onstage fairy. Her face is a mask of defiance: chin lifted upwards, thin lips curved down in an almost imperceptible sneer, eyes half-closed and gazing up above, as if deliberately avoiding the eye contact. In today’s world, she could be a teenage daughter refusing to follow the rules laid down by her parents.

However, in 1881, Degas’s sculpture was not seen in such innocent light. The public had no difficulty in connecting “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” with unsavory goings-on behind the scenes at the Opéra which were universally known yet unmentioned in the upper-class society. But instead of blaming the licentious “patrons of the arts,” they chose to vilify the victim. “Why is she so ugly?” critic Paul Mantz addressed his readers in a self-righteous anger. “Why is her forehead, half covered by her hair, marked already, like her lips, with a profoundly vicious character?”

This view of “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” as a young, but already deeply corrupt person was seconded by another critic, Jules Claretie. “The lecherous little snout on this barely pubescent young girl, this little flower of the gutter, is unforgettable,” he chimed in.

But what about the artist himself? What was his attitude towards his model? Did he also saw her as a symbol of depravity? Or was he sympathetic to her plight?

“The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” is as tight-lipped as ever. However, shown within the context of other Degas’s works, she unwittingly provides an insight into the thinking process of her creator.

degas-dance-rehearsalDancers, laundresses, prostitutes look at us from the walls as we stroll through the galleries. Regardless of their occupation, they all have one thing in common: they are working women being captured by the artist at the moment when they seem unaware of being observed. Many of them look bored or tired. Dancers are striking rather ungraceful poses as they are stretching before the rehearsal. Laundresses are yawning and stretching in front of the pile of linen waiting to be ironed. Naked prostitutes are sitting or sprawling on a couch waiting for a customer, their legs nonchalantly spread apart.

Not so long ago Degas was sometimes labeled a misogynist by art historians based on what was perceived as his denigrating representation of women. The exhibition at MFAH lays this viewpoint to rest. When one looks at these images not separately, but as a part of a series, it becomes obvious that the artist was an unbiased observer of the contemporary life which he recorded it as he saw it without passing judgment. He avoided both melodramatics and didacticism which were so common at his time.

Neither Degas’s dancers nor prostitutes fit the prevailing stereotype of his time — that of a voluptuous seductress. Surrounded by these images, “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” does not look so exceptional. With her skeletal frame and awkward pose, she belongs to this unglamorous world of working women. Yet she stands alone in the artist’s legacy as the only large-size sculpture (two-thirds life size) he ever created and showed publicly.

Predominately a painter, Degas made a handful of small wax sculptures during his lifetime. All of them were later cast in bronze to prevent the inevitable loss of the perishable wax originals. It is believed that he intended them as studies to better understand the movement of a body — of a person or a horse — before depicting it on canvas. Shown in the exhibition at MFAH is a small horse figure which is positioned in front of the painting where the same image is featured. However, there is no evidence that “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” was a study for a painting.

It seems that Degas spent almost two years finessing his sculpture before presenting it to the world. Initially, he planned to do it at the Impressionist exhibition of 1880, but changed his mind. In 1881, the place reserved for this long-awaited work remained empty for 14 days before it finally made its debut. And what an uproar it caused! Exhibiting a sculpture executed in wax – not one of the long-venerated fine art media like marble or bronze — was an audacious gesture in itself. Wax was traditionally reserved for funerary art, such as recumbent effigies, and moulage — depiction of human anatomy and different diseases for teaching purposes. Degas taunted the public even further by dressing his creation in real garments and displaying it in a glass case, the same way classical sculpture was exhibited at the Louvre.

The artist demonstrated great ingenuity in making his masterpiece. A few years ago the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., undertook an extensive study to resolve questions about his technique. It proved that Degas did not carve his sculpture but used an additive process. He built a metal armature which he filled with organic materials such as wood chips, rope and even old paintbrushes in the arms. 

“Among the most surprising discoveries reported in the study is the evidence of an earlier version of the “Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer‘s” head and face concealed inside the current head,” Patricia Failing of “ArtNews” wrote.

"Self Portrait" by Edgar Degas

“Self Portrait” by Edgar Degas

Very few of Degas’s contemporaries were ready to appreciate the novelty of his creation. Among them was French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans who called it “the only really modern attempt that I know of in sculpture.” Others were appalled and mocked the unusual work declaring that it belonged to an anatomical display or the wax museum of Madame Tussaud rather than an art exhibition.

So was Degas’s real objective to break the boundaries of the artistic convention of his time? Was his sculpture an experiment, a revelatory vision of things to come in the more open-minded 20th century? Was it a purely artistic search for new means of expression and Marie van Goethem’s personal story was irrelevant?

There is one more fact that should be taken into consideration. At the same exhibition of 1881 Degas showcased two pastels titled “Criminal Physiognomy,” a characterological study of a criminal type based on the appearance of the murderers in a recent notorious case. Like many intellectuals of his time, Degas shared an opinion that one’s predisposition towards criminal behavior may be detected through the examination of this person’s skull and facial features. In fact, Degas was lauded as the champion of “scientific realism,” the goal of which was to study natural phenomena through artistic methods.

Could it be that “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” also was a characterological study? If so, were those critics who called her “bestial,” “monkey,” and “a flower of precocious depravity” correct in their understanding of the artist’s message?

Degas provided no personal account which could shed light on the reasons that compelled him to create “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer.” Like so many artists before and after, he delivered his creation to the public forum and left it there to fend for itself. Maybe the power of art is in its ability to challenge us to seek our own answers.

The exhibition “Degas: A New Vision” is on view at MFAH though Jan. 16.

Story by Elena Ivanova, ISSUE staff writer