A Little Dancer: Edgar Degas and His Controversial Work of Art


     Once upon a time, there was an artist named Edgar Degas. Degas lived in a tumultuous day; his homeland, France, was enduring wave after wave of unrest, rebellion and strife. New faces and names were appearing all the time as men struggled both to defend their country and form a “better” France.

     Amidst all of this, the French people, a people of beauty and tradition, were finding themselves on the brink of a new age. Modernism, social advancement, and changes in daily life were appearing before their very eyes, and no one could ultimately keep France from moving forward with the rest of the world.

       Some people resisted these changes; others worked to promote them. One particular group of people, known as the Impressionists, worked to change the way people viewed art. The Impressionists used thin, free brushstrokes and dabs of color in their paintings, creating a sense of movement and life. They worked outdoors rather than inside a studio, and often constructed their works without detail, blending, or definite lines and contours. It was important for them to work quickly, because the sunlight they wanted to capture in their paintings moved from place to place rapidly.

           Degas befriended several of these revolutionary painters, including Mary Cassatt and Auguste Renoir, but he did not think of himself as an Impressionist. Degas preferred to put a great deal of thought into his work, and spent a lot of time studying the old masters. Initially he wanted to paint historic and classical subjects; nevertheless, he found himself drawn to the bustle of everyday “modern” life in nineteenth century France. Laundresses, café patrons, milliners, and especially dancers, show up again and again in his paintings, drawings, and sketches.

        However, one of Degas’s most famous and haunting works was not crafted with paint or a pencil, but with wax.

         Degas spent countless hours at the Palais Garnier, where he observed, sketched, and drew the girls training there to become professional ballerinas. It was here that Degas found Marie Van Goethem, a poor Belgian girl enrolled in the dance school with her younger sister. Her father dead, Marie lived with her small family in a little apartment in the Breda district of Paris, a place notorious for high levels of poverty and prostitution. Mrs. Van Goethem probably tried to keep herself and her daughters afloat by working as a laundress, and possibly, a prostitute. Marie’s older sister, Antoinette, was employed as an extra at the Paris Opera (also known as the “brothel of France”) where she was known as an “easy woman” who took on male patrons. The youngest two girls, Marie and Charlotte, earned their wages by performing at the Opera.

          Over a space of three years, Degas painted and drew Marie several times, probably paying her a small sum to pose for him. Eventually, he asked her to pose for a small statue that he was sculpting. Marie agreed, and Degas set to work on “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” (“The Little Dancer of Fourteen Years”).

           The sculpture, upon completion in 1881, stood 38 15/16 inches high and weighed 49 pounds. Degas modeled it in colored wax and dressed the figure in a linen bodice, satin shoes, and a muslin tutu. He even gave her a wig formed from real hair and a pink satin ribbon. The statue stands erect, her right leg forward and tilted ninety degrees, her head up, and her fingers locked behind her back. Degas didn’t give the statue an ideal figure or ideal features as other artists of the day would have; instead, he sculpted Marie as she must have appeared in reality.

     Her bony arms and legs are shaped by hard work and practice; her shoulders are straight and her stance is dignified. There is a look of what some would describe as haughtiness or defensiveness on her upturned face, and her eyes are closed. Perhaps she is trying to shut out the harsh realities of life. Life for a poor dancer, a “petit rat”, was not easy. At that time in France, ballet was not thought of as a glamorous or respectable profession; most people tended to think of the dancers as poor women with low standards, easily drawn into crimes and immoral relationships with wealthy male patrons.

         Degas displayed his finished creation at the 1881 impressionist exhibition in Paris. He kept the statue protected in a glass case (which was unusual for the time), safe from spectators and shut in a peaceful world of her own.

        Perhaps it was wise of Degas to lock her away, for most critics scoffed at his little dancer. “This opera rat has something about her of the monkey, the shrimp, the runt” laughed Elie de Mont in La Civilisation. Critic Paul Mantz called her “a flower of precocious depravity” and reported that her face”…held the hateful promise of every vice”. Viewers wondered why she was encased in glass like a medical specimen, and many were disgusted by her broad face and unattractive, undeveloped body. Henri Trianon seems to have summed up the general opinion by referring to her as the “young monster”.

        After the exhibition in 1881, Degas never displayed this piece again. Undeterred, the artist continued to paint and sculpt, and he kept the statue with him throughout his life, sometimes calling it “his daughter”. He died in Paris in 1917, at the age of 83. Upon his death, his heirs had “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” cast again in bronze. The original wax sculpture ended up in the collection of Paul Mellon, who eventually donated it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., where it remains to this day and is recognized as an important piece in the history of art.

     The controversial sculpture encouraged other artists to pursue realism, rather than idealization. It was decidedly unique, and one of the very first sculptures to be classified as “modern art”. Spectators, even today, are reminded of the web of poverty, pain, and sexual exploitation that dancers in the backstage world of the popular operas and ballets of the 1800’s were caught in.

       No one seems to know what became of the girl behind the statue. Marie Van Goethem’s older sister, Antoinette, was jailed for stealing 700 francs from a patron at a bar around 1882. Marie herself was apparently dismissed from the dance school shortly afterwards, as a result of missing too many classes. It was reported on February 10, 1882, that the teenager was seen frequenting two undesirable taverns, but we are given no definite clues as to what became of her after her dismissal in June 1882.

      It is possible that she sank to prostitution or thievery, or even died young; these are certainly plausible theories, especially considering the squalid conditions in which the Van Goethems lived. Marie’s younger sister Charlotte became a known dancer and teacher at the Opera school; perhaps Marie, if alive, was situated more comfortably in later years due to this. We can only hope that her story had a happy ending.

       Still, through Degas’s haunting statuette, we are able to witness a fleeting space of time in Marie’s life decades later. Perhaps as she posed wearily for the artist so many years ago, Marie Van Goethem was dreaming of a better life, more money, and less work. We will never know. But the mystery of the little dancer’s life continues to surround Edgar Degas’s masterpiece, creating a halo of intrigue above the statue’s dreamy countenance.

By Meredith Joy