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Eternal ballerina

Posted August. 17, 2023 08:02,   

Updated August. 17, 2023 08:02


Edgar Degas was famous for oil paintings and pastel paintings of ballerinas. He depicted everyday lives of dancers behind the stage or in practice rather than on stage. Among many of his artworks, however, the most controversial and famous is a sculpture titled “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years” (around 1880, photo). Why is the statue controversial?

The model of the statue was a young student named Marie van Goetham of the Paris Opera Ballet School. Her mother was a foreign worker from Belgium who made a living as a washwoman and tailor after her husband passed away. In the 1880s, girls from poor families joined the Opera Ballet School to earn money. Young dancers were pressured to have unwanted relationships with wealthy male sponsors. It was Degas who saved the girl by employing Goetham as a model from 1878 to 1881.

When the sculpture was unveiled at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881, people became aghast. It was not beautiful at all, reflecting the miserable reality and physical agony of a poor dancer. Her expression‎ is distorted as if she is forced to do something that she does not wish to do.

The material of the sculpture was also controversial. It was made of beeswax, instead of bronze, wearing a wig made of real hair and ballet attire. Excluding the hair ribbon and tutu skirt, Degas covered everything with beeswax. Some welcomed the move as a novel attempt for modern sculpture, but many criticized were shocked by the piece. Back then it was a new attempt as the combination of everyday objects with art unheard of, starting after the 20th century.

Degas’ sculpture gained recognition after his death. Twenty-eight bronze repetitions were created and collected by leading museums around the world. What happened to Goetham? She was fired from the ballet school after the controversial exhibition, as she was frequently absent from school due to modeling. Instead, her moments as a ballerina were captured forever in a sculpture.