“The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer”, Edgar Degas, cast in 1922
Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art website
A few days ago, Alastair Macaulay wrote an article about Edgar Degas’s ballet paintings and sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which were not on display for about a year because of renovations. Since a friend and I were planning a visit to the Met to see the Jeff Koons sculptures on the museum’s roof (and luckily, a fabulous sunset), we decided to swing by the European wing afterward to see Degas’s dancers from the late 19th century.
The last time I viewed “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer”, a sculpture made in 1879-1880 and cast in bronze in 1922, I was only six or seven, but I distinctly remember being awestruck by the life-size figure. Her name is Marie van Goethem, and she was a student at the Paris Opéra in France. She’s also probably the only ballet student who has been cast in bronze, with a cotton skirt and satin hair ribbon, and viewed by millions of people all over the world. Macaulay pointed out that she has a lot to learn about ballet technique and alignment – her weight is almost entirely on her back leg in fourth position, her shoulders slightly forward, and her stomach protrudes. But to me, she isn’t attempting to show off her technique, but rather, is standing at the side of the classroom, perhaps admiring older, more advanced dancers in an exercise.
“Dancers, Pink and Green”, ca 1890 (Image from the Met Museum website)
Degas’s paintings are striking for many reasons. First, the dancers are either stretching, adjusting shoe ribbons, chatting, or watching other dancers, but hardly ever dancing. Second, there is incredible detail in each scene, with numerous things occurring simultaneously, but the paintings still look serene. There is no sense of urgency in the rehearsals or classes, nor do the studios seem to be charged with a competitive energy or strictness that is so common in today’s ballet schools. Additionally, Degas painted from unusual vantage points, never directly from the front of the studio or stage. Instead, he captured the dancers and ballet masters from backstage or the corner of a studio – angles that reflect the viewpoint of an outsider peeking in. Ballet technique has greatly improved since Degas painted and sculpted these French dancers, but his works illustrate so much more than just extended legs and graceful arms.