Edgar Degas’ 'Little Dancer Aged Fourteen' caused a stir when she was first exhibited in 1881.
Many critics were not sure what to make of the unprecedented use of materials – the statue was originally sculpted in wax, with real human hair and a real dancer’s tutu and linen slippers.
The statue, which has never been shown publicly since, is now part of a special exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
“The statuette is the only work of sculpture that Degas exhibited in his lifetime. And it’s also the original version of a very famous statuette – famous because after Degas’ death it was replicated at his family’s wishes in beautiful bronze casts, more than 30 of them. And those can be seen today in museums all over the world and in private collections. But the original, the only one that Degas ever touched or saw, is the one that’s here in the room,” says Alison Luchs, curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
The exhibition coincides with the opening of a new musical at Washington’s Kennedy Center based on the original Little Dancer.
The model for the statue was Marie van Goethem, a Belgian dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet. The musical tells the story of the young ballerina who, by posing for Edgar Degas, inadvertently became one of the most famous dancers in the world.
Part fact, part fiction, the story centres on Marie, her friendship with Degas and what happened to her after she left the Paris Opera.
“She came from a very poor family, but wanted to become a ballerina. And Degas really sort of became obsessed, drawing her and painting her. You see her face in many of his pictures and paintings. So, really, the idea was to bring her back to life,” says choreographer Susan Stroman.
“I just feel like they just love to bicker, Degas and Marie. You know, they’re like… he’s finally met a ballerina who isn’t afraid to speak. And I think that’s what’s really special about her, that she’s not scared of him and she’s not afraid to speak her mind when, normally, ballerinas, you know, you don’t think they speak,” says ballerina Tiler Peck, who plays young Marie.
The original Marie was dismissed from the ballet in the summer of 1882 and disappeared from the records. The show hints at several possible paths her life could have taken.
'Little Dancer' runs at the Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C. until the end of November.