Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.
Edgar Degas, “Little Dancer, Aged 14″
by Poppy Simpson, Head of Curation
Context is everything. Now beloved, the original wax version of Edgar Degas’ ‘Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen’ was reviled by most critics when it was shown at the 1881 impressionist exhibition in Paris. Art critic Elie de Mont was appalled: “I don’t ask that art should always be elegant, but I don’t believe that its role is to champion the cause of ugliness.”
Degas’ sculpture, the only one he ever exhibited, broke with 19th century traditions in using real hair, a fabric costume and satin slippers. But it was the subject—an ‘opera rat’, as young, working-class dancers from the Paris Opera ballet were known—that caused the biggest stir. At the time, sculpture was associated with idealized forms and so Degas’ naturalism—the girl’s unusual pose, damaged body and strong features—was a challenge to artistic norms.
Edgar Degas, “The Rehearsal of the Ballet on Stage”, c. 1878-79
In fact, it’s easy to forget quite how innovative and daring an artist Degas was. Today, his paintings of dancers are among the most familiar and popular artworks of all time. However, to nineteenth century audiences, Degas’ work would have appeared modern and challenging, both in terms of technique and subject. For while he was influenced by draftsmanship and palette of classical painters, Degas experimented with radical viewpoints and perspectives—cutting figures off at the edge of the canvas, for example, or contrasting highly patterned areas with planes of color. And, instead of focusing on the the majesty and elegance of the ballet, Degas scoured Palais Garnier (home of the Paris Opera and ballet) for unexpected scenes—wealthy male patrons ominously shadowing young dancers, bored ballerinas waiting in the wings, and vignettes that laid bare the extraordinary physical demands of dancing.
Here was a world that satisfied both Degas’ love of classical beauty and his interest in realism. In the 21st century, we are accustomed to art and photography that takes us ‘behind the scenes’, but to many of Degas’ contemporaries, this mix of beauty and brutality was revolutionary.