Sunday, October 23, 2011

Petite danseuse de quatorze ans

On November 1, Christie's in New York will be offering this iconic large-scale bronze sculpture Petite danseuse de quatorze ans by Edgar Degas. Degas executed a wax model circa 1879-1881. The entire edition of twenty-eight was cast in bronze posthumously sometime between 1921 and 1938.

Few of these twenty-eight castings remain in private hands, hence the estimate is a very strong $25,000,000 to $35,000,000. As recently as its sale of February 3, 2009, Sotheby's published an estimate for an example of this series a£9,000,000 to £12,000,000.

Lot Description

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Petite danseuse de quatorze ans 
signed, numbered and inscribed with foundry mark 'Degas HER A.A.HEBRARD CIRE PERDUE' (on the base)
bronze with muslin skirt and satin hair ribbon with wooden base
Height (including base): 40½ in. (102.9 cm.)
Executed in wax circa 1879-1881 and cast in bronze at a later date 


    $25,000,000 - $35,000,000
  • November 1, 2011:  Unsold
    Sale Information
Sale 2477 Lot 18
Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale 
1 November 2011
New York, Rockefeller Plaza 

Lot Notes

Petite danseuse de quatorze ans is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and important sculptures of the modern era. A candid depiction of a young dancer at two-thirds life-size, thePetite danseuse is the largest, most technically ambitious, and most iconographically complex of Degas's sculptures, and the only one that he ever exhibited during his lifetime. It therefore stands apart from the remainder of Degas's sculptural output, which numbered more than a hundred and fifty extant figures or fragments at his death, and represents the pinnacle of his achievement in this medium, to which he devoted a great deal of time and energy over the course of his career. With its unflinching physiognomic realism, bold and unconventional combination of materials, and problematic moral undertones, the Petite danseuse represented a daring and controversial break with academic tradition when the original wax version was shown publicly in 1881, at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition. Richard Kendall has written, "Degas' Little Dancer Aged Fourteenis among the three or four most celebrated sculptures of the modern age. Along with Rodin's The Kiss and the same artist's The Thinker, and perhaps Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty, Degas's statuette of a slender young ballet dancer has become recognizable to millions and admired throughout the world... As a precocious venture into color, as a challenging juxtaposition of naturalism and artifice, and as a frank depiction of the commonplace, the sculpture has since been cited among the precursors of Cubism, Surrealism, and even Pop Art and its recent derivatives" (exh. cat., op. cit., Omaha, 1998, p. 1).

The model for the Petite danseuse was a young dancer named Marie van Goethem, whose name and address are inscribed on a preparatory study for the sculpture (Vente III: 341.2; fig. 1). Born on 7 June 1865 to Belgian immigrants (a tailor and a laundress), Marie was the middle of three sisters, all of whom were enrolled as ballet students at the Paris Opéra. The family resided on the lower slopes of Montmartre at 36 rue de Douai, just a few doors from Degas's friend Ludovic Halévy and near several studios and apartments that the artist himself rented during this period. Marie is believed to have posed for several other works by Degas around the same time as thePetite danseuse, including Danseuse au repos (Lemoisne, no. 573; fig. 2) and La leçon de danse(Lemoisne, no. 479; fig. 3). By 1882, she had apparently become well-known as an artist's model, earning note in the Parisian daily L'Evénement as: "Mlle Van Goeuthen [sic.]... Poses for painters. Therefore frequents the Brasserie des Martyrs and Le Rat Mort" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit.,New York, 1988, pp. 346-347). She enjoyed a brief and not particularly illustrious career at the Opéra, dancing in La Korrigane in 1880 and Namouna in 1882, but was dismissed for repeated absences midway through 1882 and may have fallen into a life of prostitution.

Unlike most of Degas's sculptures, Petite danseuse de quatorze ans--the title that the artist himself gave the work--can be dated with some certainty. Marie van Goethem turned fourteen in June of 1879 (not February of 1878, as scholars previously believed), indicating that Degas probably began working on the composition sometime in that year. The original version of the sculpture is fashioned over a central armature of lead pipes, to which wood and organic batting were attached as bulking materials; over this, Degas added clay and ultimately wax, which he then modeled, pigmented, painted in places, and meticulously detailed throughout. This intricate and labor-intensive mode of fabrication suggests that the artist intended the Petite danseuse for public display from the outset, perhaps as an announcement of his shifting ambitions. As the sculpture neared completion, Degas clothed the figure in a cotton faille bodice, linen ballet slippers, and a tutu comprised of several layers of netting, and added a braid of real hair tied with a satin ribbon at the back of her head. The sculpture was probably close to completion by March of 1880, when it was listed in the catalogue for the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition. At the last minute, however, Degas decided to withdraw the sculpture from the show, leaving only a glass vitrine on display. The critic Gustave Goetschy lamented, "Everything M. Degas produces interests me so keenly that I delayed by one day the publication of this article to tell you about a wax statuette that I hear is marvelous and that represents a fourteen-year-old dancer... But M. Degas isn't an 'Indépendant' for nothing! He is an artist who produces slowly, as he pleases, and at his own pace... All the worse for us! We will not see his Dancer..." (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1988, pp. 342-343).

The Petite danseuse is also remarkable in Degas's three-dimensional oeuvre in being preceded by an exhaustive series of preparatory drawings, which further indicates the scope and ambition of the project. There exist five sheets containing a total of twelve full-length studies for the sculpture (Lemoisne, nos. 586bis and 586ter; Vente III: 277, 386; Vente IV: 287.1; fig. 4), as well as a page of sketches isolating the head and torso (fig. 1) and one concentrating on the legs and feet (Vente III: 149). The various studies all show slightly varying poses, body types, costumes, and hairstyles, suggesting that they derive from several separate modeling sessions. Moreover, the drawings depict Marie from multiple angles, creating in effect a comprehensive account of her figure in the round through a sequence of two-dimensional images. Degas made two additional drawings that depict the model with her arms in front of her chest, which indicates that he considered at least one alternative pose for the Petite danseuse before settling on the final composition (Lemoisne, no. 599; Vente III: 369). Finally, the artist executed a nude figure in wax, roughly three-quarters the size of the Petite danseuse, which closely anticipates the pose, physical type, and overall effect of the clothed version (Rewald, no. XIX; fig. 6); this may represent either a study for the Petite danseuse or an independent variant, itself preceded by two preparatory drawings (Vente III: 386; Vente IV: 287; fig. 7).

When the Petite danseuse was finally exhibited in 1881 at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition, it made an immediate and dramatic impact, earning both outspoken supporters and zealous detractors. Even if they disagreed on its relative merits, however, the exhibition reviews were unanimous in admitting that it was an extraordinary work. Many critics praised the sculpture as a daring manifestation of the avant-garde. The critic Charles Ephrussi lauded it as "a truly modern effort," while Nina de Villard predicted that it would become "the leading expression of a new art" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Omaha, 1998, p. 45). J.-K. Huysmans called the Petite danseuse "the only truly modern initiative that I know of in sculpture," and proclaimed, "The fact is that at one fell swoop, M. Degas has overthrown the traditions of sculpture, as he has for a long time been shaking up the conventions of painting" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1988, p. 343).

Others critics, however, were shocked or even appalled by the statue's startling degree of verisimilitude. Although the life-like quality of the sculpture's tinted wax surface provoked some comment, the most innovative and audacious feature of the sculpture was its incorporation of actual articles of clothing, which made the sculpture seem at once illusory and real. These sartorial elements--which anticipate the use of found materials in Cubism, Dada, and Pop--constituted an overt challenge to the accepted criteria of sculpture in the late nineteenth century and a veritable affront to contemporary viewers, many of whom compared the dressed wax figure to a doll, a puppet, or a shop mannequin. With its distinctive facial features and adolescent anatomy, the Petite danseuse also represented a striking contrast to the idealized figural sculpture of Degas's day. Eschewing academic tradition, Degas carefully reproduced Marie's receding chin, broad cheeks, and small forehead, as well as her gangly limbs, flat chest, and slight stomach bulge--the awkward physiognomy of a fourteen-year-old girl, delicately poised between childhood and maturity. Spurning the glamour of the performance, moreover, Degas captured Marie at a revealing and imperfect moment: self-absorbed and off-guard, her eyes half-closed, her costume that of the classroom rather than the stage. She stands in what is known today as a casual fourth position, often adopted by ballerinas at rest; her arms are thrust firmly downwards behind her back with her hands clasped, an exercise intended to stretch the upper body after a strenuous rehearsal.

Notably, much of the negative criticism of the Petite danseuse focused on the moral issues raised by these physical aspects of the dancer. The sculpture epitomized for many of Degas's contemporaries the sexually available "rat" or young Opéra trainee, given definitive form in a well-known series of stories that Degas's friend Ludovic Halévy published during the 1870s. For Ephrussi, the Petite danseuse represented "the Opéra rat in her modern form, learning her craft, with all her disposition and stock of bad instincts and licentious inclinations" (quoted in exh. cat.,op. cit., Omaha, 1998, p. 21). In the same vein, Paul Mantz described the dancer's expression as one of "brutish insolence," and asked, "Why is her forehead, as are her lips, so profoundly marked by vice?" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1988, p. 343). Modern scholars, likewise, have linked the Petite danseuse to nineteenth-century discourse on criminal physiognomy, arguing that the figure would have been instantly recognizable at the time as a member of the so-called classe dangeureuse (A. Callen, op. cit., 1995, pp. 21-29; exh. cat., op. cit., Omaha, 1998, pp. 76-96). Degas's decision to enclose the sculpture in a glass vitrine underscored this association, reminding contemporary viewers of anthropological and zoological displays as well as installations of Egyptian and Etruscan art at the Louvre. Discussing the conflicting reactions to which the Petite danseuse gave rise in 1881, Kendall has concluded:

"What is overwhelmingly evident is that, from its inception, Degas chose to engage with one of the most resonant images of his day, an image that was seen by his peers to link high art with the gutter and to provoke anxiety as much as approval. More versed than we in these social semaphores, Degas's audiences were either thrilled by its novelty or exasperated by its awkwardness, while none seemed indifferent to the sculpture's presence. Those accustomed to the sparkling elegance of Garnier's auditorium were perplexed by the elevation of a mere 'rat' such prominence, while the 'adepts' of the new art...were thrilled by its audacity. Experts in the dance were able to concede the 'singular exactitude' of the work, while those expecting titillation were thwarted at every turn by the indifferent expression of the dancer's pinched features or by the lack of voluptuousness in her young body. And for established followers of Degas's art, here was another challenge: a colored, three-dimensional object by a painter they knew well, leading them from the familiar illusions of pictorial space to the treacherous pseudo-realities of sculpture" (ibid., p. 24).

Following the 1881 Impressionist Exhibition, the wax version of the Petite danseuse remained in Degas's studio until his death in 1917; it was never again exhibited during his lifetime or reproduced in any form. The possibility of casting the sculpture arose in 1903 when the celebrated Impressionist collector Louisine Havemeyer attempted to purchase the wax original; Degas was concerned about parting with it on account of its blackened condition and proposed producing a bronze or plaster cast instead. Although the sale did not come to fruition, several references in Degas's correspondence--in particular, a letter to the sculptor Bartholomé that begins: "My dear friend, and perhaps caster..."--indicate that the artist seriously considered casting the sculpture at this time. Moreover, Degas did have several of his sculptures cast in plaster around the turn of the century and exhibited in a large display cabinet in his studio, indicating that he was not averse to preserving his wax models in more durable materials. In the end, however, the casting of the Petite danseuse was not launched until 1918, when Degas's heirs contracted with the founder Adrien Hébrard, renowned for his high technical and artistic standards, to produce limited bronze editions of all seventy-four wax sculptures found during the posthumous inventory of the artist's studio that were considered salvageable.

To preserve Degas's original waxes, the master founder Albino Palazzolo first encased each one in a flexible gelatin mold, which he used to cast a duplicate wax. The duplicate wax was then sacrificed in the cire perdue process to produce a modèle or master cast, from which all subsequent casts were made. For all the sculptures in Degas's oeuvre except the Petite danseuse, the modèle was bronze. In the case of the Petite danseuse, however, two plaster models were made instead, one of which was used to produce the molds for making the bronzes (Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha) and one of which served as the color model for patinating the cast sculptures (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). The first complete set of bronzes, including thePetite danseuse, was finished in 1921 and purchased by Louisine Havemeyer. Despite the difficulty of translating the mixed-media, polychrome Petite danseuse into bronze, contemporary observers were universally pleased with the results. In a letter to Degas's niece Jeanne Fevre in June of 1921, Cassatt reported, "Before leaving Paris last Thursday I saw the exhibition of your uncle's bronzes. M. Durand said that the large dancer has just been cast and that the result surpassed even M. Hébrard's expectations" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1988, p. 352). Six months later, Cassatt again wrote to Fevre, "Mrs. Havemeyer [has] acquired the first cast of the large dancer... I have not been able to see the statue enough to judge the reproduction, but I heard from others that it was admirable" (quoted in ibid., p. 352).

As with the other sculptures in Degas's oeuvre, the casting of the Petite danseuse was not completed until 1938 or even later. A total of twenty-eight bronze casts of the sculpture have been identified, over half of which are exhibited today in major museums. Thirteen casts are each stamped with their own letter (A through T), and nine are unlettered; one is marked HER.D., and two (including the present example) are marked HER, indicating that they were to be reserved for Degas's heirs and for the foundry, respectively. A final example, marked modèle, is housed in the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena; not a modèle proper, it is believed to have been cast from another bronze in the corpus, rather than from the wax original or the plaster foundry model. The wax originals of all Degas's sculptures were put on the market in 1955 and sold to the collector Paul Mellon, who subsequently donated a group of them, including the Petite danseuse, to the National Gallery of Art, where they reside today.

[Figures not included]

(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Quatre études d'une danseuse, circa 1878-1881. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Barcode: 29175062

(fig. 2) Edgar Degas, Danseuse au repos, circa 1878-1880. Private collection.
Barcode: 29175031

(fig. 3) Edgar Degas, La leçon de danse, 1881. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Barcode: 29175024

(fig. 4) Edgar Degas, Trois a©tudes d'une danseuse, circa 1878-1880. Art Institute of Chicago.
Barcode: 29175017

(fig. 5) Edgar Degas, Trois études d'une danseuse, circa 1878-1880. Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
Barcode: 29175048

(fig. 6) Edgar Degas, Etude de nu pour "La petite danseuse", circa 1878-1881. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California.
Barcode: 29175079

(fig. 7) Edgar Degas, Etude d'une danseuse nu, circa 1878-1881. Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo.
Barcode: 29175055


Emile Peyonat, Saône et Loire.
Claude Glassey, Geneva.
Private collection, Europe (acquired from the above); sale, Sotheby's, London, 27 June 2000, lot 3.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
P. Mantz, "Exposition des oeuvres des artistes indépendants" in Les Temps, 1881, p. 3.
J.K. Huysmans, L'Art Moderne, Paris, 1883, pp. 226-227.
P. Gsell, "Edgar Degas, statuaire" in La Renaissance de l'art français et des industries de luxe, December 1918, pp. 374-376 (wax version illustrated, p. 375).
P.-A. Lemoisne, "Les Statuettes de Degas" in Art et Décoration, Paris, 1919, pp. 111-113 (wax version illustrated, p. 112).
P. Jamot, Degas, Paris, 1924, pp. 113 and 149 (wax version illustrated, p. 52).
G. Grappe, Degas, Paris, 1936, p. 58 (wax version illustrated).
J. Rewald, Degas: Works in Sculpture- A complete catalogue, New York, 1944, pp. 6-8, 14, 15 and 21 (another cast illustrated, pp. 63-69).
P.-A. Lemoisne, Degas et son oeuvre, Paris, 1954, p. 113.
J. Rewald, Degas: Sculpture, New York, 1957, pp. 16-20, 114-145 (another cast illustrated, pls. 24-29).
J. Rewald, The History of Impressionism, New York, 1961, p. 451 (another cast illustrated, pl. 451).
L. W. Havemeyer, Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector, New York, 1961, pp. 264 and 265.
J. Lassaigne and F. Minervino, Tout l'oeuvre peint de Degas, Milan, 1970, p. 145, no. S73 (another cast illustrated).
C.W. Millard, The Sculpture of Edgar Degas, Princeton, 1976, pp. 23-24,27,29,28-39, 80-82, 98-99 and 119-126 (another cast illustrated, fig. 26).
T. Reff, Degas: The Artist's Mind, New York, 1976, pp. 239-248 (another cast illustrated, p. 240).
G.T.M. Shackelford, Degas, The Dancers, Washington, D.C., 1984, pp. 65-76, no. 18 (another cast illustrated and wax version illustrated, p. 64).
F. Weitzenhoffer, The Havemeyers-Impressionism Comes to America, New York, 1986, pp. 242-243 and 256 (another cast illustrated, fig. 166).
R. Thomson, The Private Degas, London, 1987, pp. 80-86 (another cast illustrated, pl. 110).
R. Thomson, Degas: The Nudes, London, 1988, pp. 119-121, 125 and 179 (another cast illustrated, pl. 113).
H. Loyrette, Degas, Paris, 1991, pp. 387, 391-394, 402, 612-614 and 672.
A. Pingeot and F. Horvat, Degas Sculptures, Paris, 1991, pp. 34-35, 189-190, no. 73 (another cast illustrated).
S. Campbell, "Degas, The Sculptures: A Catalogue Raisonné" in Apollo, August 1995, pp. 46-47 (another cast illustrated, p. 46; wax version illustrated, p. 64).
M. Kahane, D. Pinasa, W. Piollet and S. Campbell, "Enqute sur la Petite danseuse de quatorze ans de Degas" in La Revue du Musée d'Orsay, Paris, autumn 1998, p. 71, no. 19 (illustrated in color).
R. Kendall, Degas and the Little Dancer, exh. cat., Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, 1998, pp. 25-106, no. 44 (another cast illustrated in color on the cover, pp. 1 and 107).
S. Campbell, R. Kendall, D. Barbour and S. Sturman, Degas in the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California, 2009, vol. II, pp. 278-285, no. 47 (another cast illustrated in color, pp. 279, 280-281).
J.S. Czestochowski and A. Pingeot, ed., Degas Sculptures: Catalogue Raisonne of the Bronzes, New York, 2002, pp. 18, 20-21 (other casts illustrated, figs. 8, 11 and 12); pp. 86-95 (another cast and details of another cast illustrated, figs. 1-10); pp. 100-105 (another cast illustrated, figs. 1-2); pp. 264-267, no. 73 (other casts illustrated; another cast illustrated on the cover and frontispiece).
R. Kendall and J. Devonyar, Degas and the Ballet, Picturing Movement, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2011, pp. 72-84 no. 26 (another cast illustrated in color, p. 85). 


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