With the exception of the Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, Edgar Degas never publicly displayed any of his sculpture. The dancer was modelled in wax and wearing a real bodice, stockings, shoes and skirt. The girl was given horsehair and a ribbon and caused quite a stir when exhibited in Paris in 1881. For the rest of his life, his sculpture remained private, rather like an artist’s sketchbook or preliminary drawings scattered about the studio.
After his death in 1917 over 150 pieces of sculpture were found in his studio, mainly of wax or clay. Most were damaged or deteriorating but the family eventually agreed to authorise a series of bronzes to be made. A contract was agreed with Paul-Albert Bartholomé, a sculptor and friend of the artist, to prepare the figures for casting by the Paris foundry of A.A. Hébrard et Cie. Each edition would be limited to twenty casts, plus one for Adrien Hébrard, head of the foundry and one for Degas’ heirs.
The original sculptures were preserved by Hébrard and reappeared in New York in 1955 when offered for sale at Knoedler and Company. They were acquired by Paul Mellon and the majority is now housed at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. The master models also appeared on the market in the early 1970s and were bought for the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.
Experts have debated the purpose of the sculptures and tried to date them through references to paintings or available documentation. For example, the sculpture of the horse trotting with its feet not touching the ground has been dated through references to Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs. The original sculptures were quite fragile and the artist’s armatures were sometimes inadequate. Some minor repairs and changes were necessary during their preparation for casting but they generally remain true to the original. Some of the bronzes are complete whilst others have been left with an exposed armature or unfinished limbs.
The little dancer has long been regarded as an icon of modern art but the other sculptures are less well known, offering us an insight into the artist’s work on dancers, bathers and horses. With an element of mystery surrounding these sculptures, The National Gallery compiled a range of physical evidence and technical analysis of Degas’s sculptural methods. Most of his sculptures were modelled from coloured beeswax, air-dried clay and plastiline, a non-drying clay. These materials were combined and built up around handmade armatures. The insides of the figures were usually bulked up with wine corks. Degas would model using rods of beeswax, sometimes applied in layers to create an entire figure, but more frequently used as cladding over a core of wires, clay or plaster. He would then work on the surface with his fingers or using a spatula.
Detailed analysis of the Little Dancer has revealed several re-workings by the artist. It reveals that he used a lead-pipe armature anchored to metal plates at the base of the legs. He then applied bulking material including wood chips, tied to the pipes with wire with the torso of the figure being bound with rope to the first layers. Clay and wax were then overlaid. Scans have revealed that he was clearly not satisfied with the head and applied additional layers of clay, requiring him to raise the shoulders of the figure and elongate the neck to compensate. To find that Degas struggled in this way gives hope to all of us budding sculptors! Of course that is not to say that we will ever produce anything quite so wonderful as these marvellous creations.