Edgar Degas

Minor Sculpture - Major Impact by Geoff Harrison

“She looks like a monkey, an aborted foetus.  If she were smaller one would be tempted to pickle her in a jar with alcohol.”  This is a sample of the vitriol that was hurled at Edgar Degas’ sculpture called “The Little Dancer, Aged 14” that was included in the French Impressionist Exhibition of 1881.

By this time, Degas’ reputation as a fine painter was well established.  His depictions of ballet dancers were revolutionary in style and composition.  After studying the works of the old masters Degas declared he wanted to be the portrayer of modern life.  That is exactly what he had in mind with “The Little Dancer”.


When one considers his background – wealthy, rather buttoned up, even lonely, it’s remarkable that he should produce a sculpture such as this.

So why the hostility?  Sculpture at that time was meant to be an uplifting art form, with figures cast in marble or bronze.  And yet here we have a figure cast in wax, about 2/3 life size with real hair and wearing a real tutu, and displayed in a glass cabinet which made her look like a scientific specimen.  Then there was that pouting expression on her face, it seemed to challenge every assumption the audience made about art; ie, she was not seeking to be admired.

Her facial features were thought to be based on “studies” being carried out by anthropologists into where humans stood on the evolutionary scale.  People with low, sloping foreheads and jutting jaws were regarded as being more primitive, like monkeys.  The model for The Little Dancer came from a poor family and Degas was known to be a misogynist.  He never married and had no children.


More importantly, this sculpture reminded Parisians of something they didn’t want to know - the goings on behind the scenes at the Paris Opera which contained the ballet school.  Certain rooms were set aside at the rear of the school that were frequented by wealthy male patrons and the young ballet students for extra-curricular activities.  Some of Degas’ ballet paintings are haunted by men in top hats – the wealthy season ticket holders.  Art and prostitution side by side.

It’s curious that The Little Dancer has been immortalised by dance students around the world when one considers what happened to Marie Van Goethem, the model for Degas’ sculpture.  The Van Goethems were among the poorest families in Paris, the mother took in laundry and the father was a tailor.  She was the middle of 3 daughters, all of whom attended the ballet school. 

Her older sister Antoinette fell into prostitution (aided by her mother) and was arrested and jailed for robbery, and about a year after Degas completed The Little Dancer, Marie’s life also began to unravel.  Rumours that she was seen in a bar frequented by artists, dancers and prostitutes were circulating and she began to miss her classes.  In 1882 she was sacked. 

What became of her after then, no one knows but it’s thought she ended up on the streets.

The younger sister Charlotte was a success story and was involved in the Paris Opera for 50 years, becoming a teacher.

Shadowy Figures in Degas's Ballet Classes by Geoff Harrison

In his excellent series The Impressionists, critic and art historian Waldemar Januszczak discusses at some length the stunning and innovative ballet studies of Edgar Degas.  But he left out a major aspect of his work, which is surprising given how thorough his research seems to have been overall.  Appearing in some of Degas's paintings are dark shadowy figures watching the "ballet rats" as the students were often referred to, with some interest.

These "patrons" were welcomed by the ballet schools as they were an important source of income.  But it is well documented that rooms were set aside at the rear of these schools for "extra curricular activities".  Many mothers sent their daughters along to these schools knowing this was happening and because it was happening, in the hope their daughters could bring home some cash that might keep the rest of the family alive.   This is the 19th Century and poverty was endemic in inner Paris.