Image from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Image from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Edgar Degas’s ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’ was originally made in 1881. It shocked audiences when it was first displayed because despite being only two thirds life size, it is hyper realistic and the original was even displayed wearing a real tutu, ballet shoes and wig made from real hair.

Nearly thirty bronze casts have since been made of the original wax ‘Little Dancer’. One of the bronze casts is on permanent display in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, where I had my university lectures, so I saw it pretty much every day. It was always a firm favourite with visitors, particularly little girls Рyou would often see groups of older girls sitting around the dancer with sketchbooks. Perhaps ‘Little Dancer’ was attractive to other girls because she appeared so familiar – they too may have been to ballet classes where they are asked to stand poised and stretched. But this surface familiarity is deceiving and hides the very different undertones that would have been picked up on in the late 19th century.

Naturalised rather than idealised, Degas has shown this Little Dancer in unflinching realism. This was shocking to contemporary audiences, who thought her to be ugly and an unfit subject for such treatment. Ballet girls were nicknamed ‘opera rats’ by French bourgeois society; typically working-class girls, they were associated with vice and popularly seen as of weak moral fibre. By portraying a little girl dancer (her name was Marie van Goethem), Degas forced viewers to confront a side to their metropolitan cultural life that they found distasteful.

Despite being shocking in some ways, ‘Little Dancer’ is typical of the canon of western history of art in others, including the fact that she is a woman/girl as the subject, created by a man. Compounding this, the original wax sculpture was displayed in a glass vitrine, emphasizing the barrier between her as a subject, to be looked at, and the contemporary Parisian men who would have been looking at her. This effect is increased by her small stature – being only two-thirds life size, she is not a commanding figure and can easily be physically looked down upon.

Despite being such a familiar subject for girls today, ’Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’ is deceptive; to contemporary, bourgeois audiences, she would have been a stark reminder of the Parisian underclass.

-Jocelyn Anderson-Wood
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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