Copper in the Arts

December 2014

Rare Edgar Degas Sculpture on View at NOMA

By Paul David

Edgar Degas Little DancerEdgar Degas Little Dancer.

A rare three-dimensional glimpse of Edgar Degas Little Dancer was recently unveiled at the New Orleans Museum of Fine Art (NOMA), and will be on view through March.

Now considered one of Degas' most important works, the original colored wax sculpture version of subject Marie van Goethem, a young novice at the Paris Opera Ballet, caused a sensation at the 1881 impressionist exhibition in Paris when it originally debuted. It wasn't until after the artist died that Little Dancer was cast in bronze in 1922 by the Hébrard foundry at the request of Degas's nieces and nephew. On view alongside the sculpture are a selection of related works of art by Degas from NOMA's permanent collection, including a pastel, a smaller bronze sculpture, and drawings and prints of one of Degas' favored subjects---the dancer. 

“Degas dabbled in sculpture throughout his mature career,” says Lisa Rotondo-McCord, Deputy Director of Cultural Affairs at NOMA. “Once he established himself as an artist, he delved into sculpture. But, he didn’t do so on a public level except this one time in 1881.”

The bronze on view is one of 23 known bronze versions of the Little Dancer, and is on loan from Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Degas’s original colored wax rendition of Little Dancer featured a muslin tutu, linen bodice, ballet slippers, and a real hair wig tied with a satin ribbon.

According to Rotondo-McCord, this type of mixed media sculpture was radical, and described by critics as "ugly" and "a threat to society.”

“People reacted very critically to this sculpture,” says Rotondo-McCord. “They called it a disgrace and thought it was ugly and somehow contrary to fine art. And whether it was because of this backlash of critical response or simply because his primary focus was painting and sketching, we don’t know, but he never exhibited the work publicly.

“When he died, there were more than 125 model sculptures in his studio, and this is one of them, says Rotondo-McCord.

Degas had worked on the Little Dancer model for decades, making several different versions over the years. Similar to the original colored wax model, the bronze version on view at NOMA also features a fabric tutu and satin ribbon. The realistic treatment of van Goethem’s face and the use of unorthodox materials highlighted the artist's desire for naturalism as an artistic standard rather than idealization.


New Orleans Museum of Art, One Collins C. Diboll Circle, City Park, New Orleans, LA, (504) 658-4100

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