Degas’ sculpture stands outside the mainstream of nineteenth-century French sculpture. He was never interested in creating public monuments and, with one exception, neither did he display his sculpture publicly. The exception was The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer. It was shown in the sixth Impressionist exhibition held in Paris in 1881, but the work has little to do with Impressionism. Modeled in wax and wearing a real bodice, stockings, shoes, tulle skirt, and horsehair wig with a satin ribbon, the figure astonished Degas’ contemporaries, not only for its unorthodox use of materials, but also and above all for its realism, judged brutish by some. The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer was not seen again publicly until April 1920.
The rest of his sculpture remained a private medium, akin to sketches or drawings, in which Degas, limiting himself to a small range of subjects, explored the problems that fascinated him. The human figures often repeat the same subject, each displaying subtle variations in composition or in the dynamics of movement or of muscular tensions within the body. For many of them, the artist found a ready source of inspiration in the ballet dancers of the Paris Opéra. Others recorded women in various stages of washing and drying themselves that provided the opportunity for depicting female nudity in an unidealized fashion. The same painstaking observation went into his modeling of horses. Numerous visits to the racetrack at Longchamp were supplemented by careful scrutiny of photographs, especially the studies of horses in motion made in the 1870s and 1880s by the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904).
Upon Degas’ death in 1917, more than 150 pieces of sculpture were found in his studio. Most were of wax, clay, and plastiline. Nearly all had reached various stages of deterioration. Illustrations of The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, as well as some of the other better-preserved examples were published in the December 1918 issue of La Renaissance de l’Art Français et des Industries de Luxe, the March 1919 issue of Vanity Fair, and the July–August 1919 issue of Art et Décoration. The debate about their preservation and ultimate disposition began. Degas’ heirs were in disagreement about a great many things, but by 1918 they had decided to authorize a series of casts, or editions, of bronzes to be made from seventy-two of the small figures. Albert Bartholomé (1848–1928), a sculptor and Degas’ longtime friend, was to prepare the figures for casting, to be executed by the Paris foundry of A.-A. Hébrard et Cie.
The contract, dated May 13, 1918, stipulated that each edition would be limited to twenty casts, plus one for Adrien Hébrard (1865–1937), head of the foundry, and one for Degas’ heirs. All the bronzes were to be stamped Degas, and a method of marking the individual casts was outlined, but it was not, in fact, the one actually used. Instead, as the catalogue for the first exhibition of the bronzes in Paris (1921) stated, each sculpture was assigned a number (1–73, although in actual practice, 73, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer [29.100.370], was not numbered), and each series of casts assigned a letter (A–T). For example, the Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot (29.100.377) was given the number 40 in the series and, as the first cast of the figure, the letter A. The completed bronze thus bears the inscribed identification 40/A in addition to the stamp Degas and the seal of the founder (CIRE/PERDUE/A.-A.HEBRARD) within a rectangle. The series cast for the Degas family was to be marked HER.D, and the series cast for Hébrard, HER. Despite some puzzling evidence to the contrary, this system seems to have been followed by Hébrard.
The actual casting of the bronzes was chiefly the work of one of Hébrard’s employees, Albino Palazzolo (1883–1973), who was entrusted with the difficult process of making molds of the delicate original sculptures without destroying them. The molds were then used to cast master models in bronze, and these in turn were used to make the molds necessary for casting the individual waxes for the lost-wax casting of each in an edition of twenty-two bronzes.
The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer had a somewhat different casting history. It is not certain how many casts were made in bronze, but it has been proposed that the master model from which the bronzes were cast is, in fact, made of plaster, not bronze (Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha).
The first, or A-letter, series of bronzes was completed before May 1921, when it was exhibited in Paris. The series was bought by Louisine Havemeyer and exhibited in New York in 1922 at the Grolier Club. All but two bronzes in the series are now in the Metropolitan Museum. Another one of the original sculptures, The Schoolgirl, was omitted from the initial series of editions. It, too, had a separate casting history.
The original sculptures, mostly of wax and long thought to have been destroyed, had in fact been preserved by Hébrard. They came to light in 1955 when they appeared in New York at Knoedler and Co., where they were offered for sale. The master models, which were completely unknown until 1955 when Palazzolo revealed their existence and explained their function, began appearing on the market in the early 1970s. The majority of the original sculptures (four had been destroyed) used for casting were acquired by Paul Mellon, and most of them were ultimately given to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Three were given to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, and four to the Musée du Louvre in Paris (now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris). The master models were bought by Norton Simon and can be seen today in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.
Most Degas scholars agree that the original sculptures were not created as aids to painting. With few exceptions, establishing the dates of the originals is therefore quite difficult. Some scholars have assumed that the figures with more highly finished surfaces represent Degas’ last versions of the sculptures; another has proposed that the more expansive the movement expressed in the sculpture, the later in Degas’ life a sculpture is likely to have been modeled. But there are few documents and little general agreement.
We know, from the date of one of Muybridge’s photographs, that Horse Trotting, the Feet Not Touching the Ground (29.100.428) cannot be earlier than 1878 and that The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer was exhibited in 1881 after having been withdrawn from exhibition a year earlier, presumably because it was then unfinished. In a letter dated June 13, 1889, Degas described his current efforts at creating a base for the work now identified as The Tub (29.100.419). We know also that around 1900, Degas permitted one of the sculptures now titled Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot to be cast in plaster. The figure is believed by some to have been made some ten or fifteen years earlier.
A much larger number of the sculptures relate to paintings, pastels, or drawings with established dates or that can be dated with some degree of certainty. These include the Horse at Trough (29.100.433), recognizable in a painting dated as early as 1866 or 1868; the two figures titled Spanish Dancer (29.100.395), which are related to drawings reproduced in 1884; and Dancer in the Role of Harlequin, which has been identified as the sculptural equivalent of a figure dressed as Harlequin in a pastel dated 1885. Many of the poses of the sculptured bathers can also be found among the artist’s works on paper, thus permitting us to date this group after the early 1880s with a fair degree of certainty. While these works of art assist in dating the sculpture, most of them cannot be considered definitive evidence, for in a letter of 1910, one of Degas’ models described her recent difficulty in holding a pose that was identical to the one preserved in the plaster cast of Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot (ca. 1900).
The original sculptures are quite fragile, owing in part to their media, in part to the fact that the artist’s armatures were often inadequate, and in part to Degas’ changes of mind. Further, it is known that Bartholomé prepared the sculpture for the foundry. Comparison of the bronzes with photographs of the original sculptures published in 1918–19 shows that Bartholomé did make some repairs and changes during the preparation. With the exception of The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, however, Bartholomé and Hébrard, the founder, seem to have been quite scrupulous in reproducing the originals. Some of the bronzes are complete, in both form and detail. Others, like the Horse with Head Lowered (29.100.430), with an exposed armature in the right front leg, must have been left as they were found and reflect an accident to the original sculpture. Still others, dancers with hands left unfinished, or horses without hooves, probably record Degas’ diminished interest in a work once he had solved a problem that preoccupied him.
Woman Getting Out of the Bath (29.100.383) is now missing arms and feet and has a ravaged chest. Usually considered a fragment, this sculpture may have been intended as a partial figure, an advanced conception for the time. Perhaps the state in which Woman Getting Out of the Bath was preserved is, indeed, the one that Degas intended; perhaps not. We do know, however, that Degas gave permission for another partial figure, now titled Woman Rubbing Her Back with a Sponge (29.100.374), to be cast in plaster during his lifetime, and that he surely knew of such works as Iris, Messenger of the Gods (1984.364.7) and The Walking Man (Musée Rodin, Paris), both partial figures that Auguste Rodin exhibited as completed sculptures in his pavilion on the Place de l’Alma in 1900, erected concurrently with the Paris Exposition Universelle of that year.
The titles of the Degas sculptures are, for the most part, English translations of the French names assigned to them at the time of the exhibition of the first series of bronzes in Paris at the Galerie A.-A. Hébrard in 1921. Some have since been revised, reflecting a better understanding of ballet terminology or more accurate identifications of the sculpture’s original context.