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Girl power

Annie Harris introduces Degas' Little Dancer, a sculpture that scandalised 19th-century Paris

Edgar Degas 1834-1917

Edgar Degas was born in Paris to a wealthy banking family. Self-taught, he perfected his draughtsmanship by copying Old Masters in Italy and the Louvre. By the 1870s, he had aligned himself with the Impressionists by becoming a painter of modern life. His preferred subjects were the theatre, cafes, brothels, laundresses, horse-racing and ballet. Though his compositions have the informal look of modern snapshots, he derived many from Japanese prints. He loved working in pastel and used monotype in a new and inventive way. Degas achieved great acclaim in his later career but by 1912 his sight had failed and he died a recluse.

This spring, the Royal Academy in London opened its suite of Fine Rooms to the public for the first time in two centuries. These magnificent 18th-century rooms have been restored with the support of John Madejski, who has also loaned his bronze of the Little 14-Year-Old Dancer by Degas, now on display in the Reynolds Room.

In addition, if you visit the Royal Academy in the autumn of this year, you will see the nude sketch study for the Little Dancer, one of 13 Degas sculptures that will be on view in the forthcoming show, Ancient Art to Post-Impressionism Masterpieces from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

Dancers engrossed Degas. Of the 2,000 paintings he made in his lifetime, more than half were of ballet dancers. The ballet school was in the Paris Opera, where Degas was able to draw the dancers exercising, resting, scratching their backs, yawning and gossiping. The paintings were composed afterwards in his studio from memory and from these drawings.

Dancers were working-class girls who from the age of 10 enrolled in classes at the Opera. These young girls were called "little rats" because they scuttled behind the scenes, making tiny holes in the scenery so they could watch the dancers on stage. We know that Degas' Little Dancer was just such a student, Marie van Goethen. From an impoverished family that lived near Degas in Montmartre, Marie was the middle of three sisters: the oldest, perhaps a prostitute, was imprisoned for robbing a man, while the youngest, a ballet student like Marie, had a long career as a dancer, became a teacher, and only retired after 50 years at the Opera in 1933. As for Marie, just one year after her statue was exhibited in 1881, she started to miss her dance classes, was dismissed and disappeared from the records.

Degas was in the habit of making small sculptures in wax of horses and dancers because he said that modelling in three dimensions was often the only way to get at the "truth" of a subject. He described how even the writer Charles Dickens used to make models of the characters in his novels so he could understand them better. For his sculpture of Marie, however, Degas began by drawing. Then, having chosen the pose (feet in ballet's fourth position) and the scale (two-thirds life-size), he constructed a lead armature to support the figure. X-rays reveal it was also strengthened with old paintbrushes. Suet, lard and olive oil were added to the wax to make it more malleable. Degas clothed his model in a real bodice (covered with yellow wax), a tutu and ballet shoes, although he sculpted the stockings. He used real hair, smeared with wax and tied with a real ribbon.

The Little Dancer's eyes are almost shut: she seems to be looking inwards, not asking to be looked at, and her expression is strangely ecstatic and closed. Her wiry, young body, appears so full of the potential for movement that we are transfixed by its sense of life.

But when the wax sculpture of the Little Dancer (the only one of Degas'

sculptures that he exhibited) was shown in the 1881 Impressionist exhibition, the public was quite scandalised. For one thing, people were not used to seeing sculptures made of wax. They expected the idealised smoothness of white marble, or the permanence of bronze. Degas was fully aware of the transience of his wax models, considering them part of his thought-processes and not made for the eyes of posterity. In his studio when he died, 150 models of women and horses were found, mostly of wax and in varying stages of disintegration. Only 73 were restorable and subsequently cast in bronze. The wax statue of the Little Dancer was given to the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, but not before 27 known bronzes had been cast from her.

There were other reasons for the critics' initial unease. They said the young girl looked like an Aztec, or an Egyptian. Her jaw was like "an animal's muzzle" and they said she should be in the new medical museum in Paris with other medical monstrosities. They thought she had an "ancient" look, instead of that of a pretty girl. They could not get over the shock to their expectations of what a sculpture should be. It should not have been a sickly-coloured, strangely real, skinny Parisian teenager wearing real clothes, from a clearly impoverished background, who didn't seem sentimentally miserable, but strangely independent and unaware of her audience. But, said Degas, "It's in the ordinary people that grace resides".

After Degas' death the life of the Little Dancer took off and her image in the public eye was transformed. She became one of the best-loved sculptures in the world. Deborah Bull from the Royal Ballet was photographed next to her in the same pose. She is now an industry, with books and films made about her. One little girl persuaded her (wealthy) parents to take her all over the world to see all the bronze casts of the Little Dancer. She represents the extreme hard work that goes into being a dancer, who then creates a vision of ease and grace from a tortuous process. In some ways, this mirrors Degas' own work as an artist. He also devoted his life to his art, copying the Old Masters and perfecting his technique in order to create the works we have grown to love, like the Little Dancer.

Annie Harris is head of education at the Royal Academy

* Ancient Art to Post-Impressionism Masterpieces from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, is on show in the John Madejski Fine Rooms, Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1, from September 18 to December 10.

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Edgar Degas, 'Little Dancer Age14' (Marie van Goethen), c1880-81. (Height 98cm without base. Bronze polychrome, muslin skirt, silk ribbon)

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