By Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Edgar Degas’ 1880 sculpture, “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen” goes on display in a second floor gallery at the New Orleans Museum of Art Friday (Oct. 10). Of the scores of sculptures Degas (1834-1917) produced, she’s the largest and best known. She’s the only three-dimensional work the French master displayed publicly.
Here’s how the Little Dancer came to the Crescent City. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts asked to borrow NOMA’s prize possession, Degas’ portrait of his cousin Estelle Musson Degas, which the impressionist master painted just a few blocks away on Esplanade Avenue in 1872. The VMFA agreed to lend the Little Dancer in return. So, until March, she’s our guest.
Degas modeled his Little Dancer on a hard-working, entry-level Parisian ballerina named Marie van Goethem. As NOMAdeputy director Lisa Rotondo-McCord pointed out, Degas didn’t idealize his young subject. Though Degas is categorized with his contemporaries and colleagues the Impressionists, he was actually a sort of realist.
It follows then that Miss Van Goethem seems a touch angular and awkward. And her skin is a bit rough-hewn. She’s certainly not the sort of soft, angelic beauty you might have seen in a proper academic sculpture of the period. As Rotondo-McCord pointed out, the young dancer’s life would have been more gritty than glamorous. Degas’ authenticity makes her seem somehow heroic.
When Degas showed the wax original of The Little Dancer at an Impressionist exhibit in 1881, Rotondo-McCord said it wasn’t especially well received. Degas irritated traditionalists by augmenting the bronze-colored wax figure with real-life details: a human-hair wig, a linen bodice and a tulle tutu. Who knows, onlookers may have considered it cheating that Degas used actual purchased materials instead of rendering them illusionistically.
Forty years after she was first shown and five years after Degas died, The Little Dancer was duplicated more than 20 times in bronze. The tulle tutus were retained and the sculpture became an icon of early modern art.
Rotondo-McCord will introduce Miss Van Goethem and deliver a gallery lecture Friday (Oct. 10) at 6 p.m., duringNOMA’s regular Friday night soirees that continue until 9 p.m. Two Degas movies — “Galleries of Masters: Edgar Degas: Of Dandies, Ballerinas, and Women Ironing” at 6:30 p.m. and “The Impressionists: Degas” at 7 p.m. — will be screened in the museum theater. NOMA, which is on the south end of City Park. Adult admission is $10.