Is art made for the artist or the audience? What makes a work of art stand out from the crowd? Why is there a need to be constantly creating? What can one do that is absolutely new? During the 1800s these were questions going through artists’ minds. The world was rapidly changing and becoming more industrialized, shifting many artists away from traditional art techniques to new methods that were unknown to society. This is known as the Modernism movement. Nowadays, some artists look at art as a source of revenue rather than trying to get a reaction out of society or make art for their own pleasure. Prior to this idea, French artist Edgar Degas contributed to the Modernism movement, creating many paintings and sculptures. One of his sculptures stands out in particular, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (1879-1881). After his death, a friend of Degas’s helped cast over 1,000 sculptures of the ballet dancer and distributed them around the world. What was once perceived as a modern and life-like sculpture has changed to be seen as a commodity, leading to the question: is the present version of Degas’s The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer a true Degas?

Degas was not known as a sculptor but rather a painter. However, “he experimented constantly with materials and methods whose novelty would match that of his vision of modern life” (Reff 141). Degas made The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer using materials previously not used in sculptures, making his sculpture look more realistic than previous statues and sculptures of the time. This sculpture is an almost life-size replica of a young ballet dancer, made of wax, clay, hair, plasticine, and fabric. Degas originally created over 150 of these life-like sculptures, but never showed all of them. He exhibited one of the dancers in 1881 at the Impressionist Exhibit in Paris (DeVonyar & Kendall 151). He used his own interpretations of the world around him to help guide his artwork. His intent was to comment on the bourgeois society and their relations with dancers in ballet. Degas was bringing attention to a topic that, although popular, was kept behind the scenes because of how provocative a subject it was. The exhibit in Paris was the only showing of The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer while Degas was alive. Afterwards, all the sculptures stayed in his studio, hidden from the public eye.

His sculpture of the young dancer was not greatly viewed by the public. “Many critics noted that the model was far from “the feminine ideal,” and some specifically singled out her “skinny body,” “little eyes,” and “vulgar retroussé nose” as offensive. Other writers described the girl as “ugly.” (DeVonyar & Kendall 151). This was caused by the use of real materials rather than marble, plaster, or bronze, all of which were popular sculpture mediums. The sculpture did not look like a statue, which was a new idea to the viewer, making the work look repulsive. Art viewers were used to seeing false interpretations of reality that were glorified. Degas’s sculpture, however, showed the audience the truths behind ballet dancers, a subject that although was known among everyone, was socially unacknowledged by society. Young ballet dancers were known for having sexual relations with the high-class male audience members, “dancers were explicitly instructed to project their charms at the audience: to always wear a ‘lively expression’ and exhibit ‘seductive grace’” (DeVonyar & Kendall 153).

Although Degas’s sculpture represented this aspect of society, his dancer was not as elegantly dressed or posed as professional ballet dancers were supposed to be. Instead, his ballet dancer is awkwardly standing looking up, wearing cheap and unflattering clothes. These factors led Degas’s work to be considered as modern. His sculpture urged society to have new thoughts, questions, and ideas. People were shocked by this sculpture because no one had ever seen a piece of artwork like it before.

After Degas died, a friend of his, Paul-Albert Bartholomé, worked with A. A. Hébrard to cast Degas’s sculptures in a more permanent material, an idea that Degas would not have been fond of. The present-day Degas sculptures are made of bronze, wood, silk satin, and cotton tarlatan.

The two artists produced 21 editions of 72 casts, equaling 1,512 sculptures, about ten times more sculptures than Degas originally made (“The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer”). Although the reason why the two decided to recreate over 1,000 of Degas’s sculptures, one can infer that it was either for popularity or money, also known as a commodity. Art as a commodity is seen as art that “produces an aesthetic dividend and can later be sold for an appreciated price” (Koenigsberg 24). Art then becomes more of a formal business type of work ethic, instead of creating just to create. The creativity and heart of the art gets lost. Art starts to act as a form of currency and a way to brand an individual for popularity. This was uncommon for the time period but was growing in popularity in the 1900s.

A prime example of this is the famous pop artist Andy Warhol, who had a factory where workers printed his artwork and would then sell the artwork all around the world. Warhol was a businessman as much as he was an artist, if not even more so. This is exactly what Bartholomé and Hébrard did but on a smaller scale than Warhol. They were producing with the ethics and morals of quantity over quality, only “Edition A comprising the first and best casts of the series” all 20 editions after that losing the quality of the first (“The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer”).

The present-day Degas sculptures have a different interpretation than their past representation because the medium of the work has changed. When looking at one of the thousand sculptures around the world, a viewer does not realize the history behind ballet dancers during the 1800s. They have the current conception of ballet dancers in their minds: hardworking, prestigious dancers who are known for perfection, nothing to do with any provocative ideas. Young ballet dancers are seen as innocent, pure, and childish in today’s time, a representation entirely different than the original.

Degas’s work is no longer commenting on the sexual relations of ballet dancers and the bourgeois society; his sculptures become objective in the modern world. It is not until the viewer learns the history of the sculptures, allowing them to understand Degas’s work to be subjective. Along with that, the sculptures no longer have the realistic qualities due to the bronze casting. The bronze deems the sculpture as a piece of history, whereas the wax and horsehair used in the original piece made the art look alive, leading viewers to be in shock because they had never seen a sculpture look so life-like. This change of material from perishable to permanent also leads the work to be seen as objective. By casting over 1,000 sculptures in bronze, the pieces lose their significance. These sculptures are being mass-produced, “there is no opacity, but only a transparency that opens onto a dizzying fall into a bottomless system of reduplication” (Krauss 10). Through this, the feelings and emotions that were originally put into the work are no longer there.

This brings up the question: can the present-day work be considered authentic Degas artwork? The answer is no. The modern-day version of The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer cannot be considered a true Degas. The meaning of the work has completely changed, along with the mediums used, as well as the initial intention of the sculptures. Although the sculptures have a resemblance to Degas’s pieces, they are not what the artist envisioned when making his art.

When an individual goes to a museum to view one of the ballet dancers, they are seeing art made by Paul-Albert Bartholomé and A. A. Hébrard. People are being led under a false pretense when looking at the art being labeled as Degas. This corresponds to the individual not knowing the history of the piece, further leading them to never know the truth about who actually made the art. This then creates a cycle of people wanting to expand their art knowledge, going to museums and looking at “Degas’s” sculpture to learn about the past and what Degas lived through. When in actuality the individual will never learn the truth about the artist and his intentions because the work is not his. In order to break this cycle, one must research the artist and The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer to discover the truth.

Without the knowledge of the history of The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer and Edgar Degas as an artist, people would never know the modern-day sculptures are not true Degases. They would also not understand how the original sculptures were modern for their time, nor why Degas was considered a Modernist artist. With these understandings, people can fully appreciate Degas’s original intent and work. However, this is one of the many challenges with art interpretation and appreciation throughout time, which leads to people being prohibited from having a true experience of the work or artist. Art no longer holds the meaning that it was created with. The meaning behind art has completely changed and people will never realize that unless they do their research.

Works Cited

DeVonyar, Jill, and Richard Kendall. “The Class of 1881: Degas, Drawing, and the ‘Little

Dancer Aged Fourteen.’” Master Drawings, vol. 41, no. 2, 2003, pp. 151–162. JSTOR,

www.jstor.org/stable/1554585.

Koenigsberg, Lisa. “Art as a Commodity? Aspects of a Current Issue.” Archives of American Art

Journal, vol. 29, no. 3/4, 1989, pp. 23–35. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1557730.

Krauss, Rosalind. “The Originality of the Avante-Garde and Other Modernist Myths” MIT Press,

1986, pp.10

Reff, Theodore. “The Technical Aspects of Degas’s Art.” Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 4,

1971, pp. 141–166. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1512619.

“The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer.” Metmuseum.org, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/29.100.370/

Storey Baldwin’s critical essay, “I Got 1,000 Degases But a Real Degas Ain’t One,” won first prize in the Eighth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Storey is a freshman studying in the Visual And Critical Studies department at SVA. She grew up in Lambertville, New Jersey. As for Storey’s accomplishments, she likes to believe that she is a cat whisperer and can bake a perfect loaf of bread.

Judge Regina Weinreich had this to say about Storey’s prize-winning critical essay: “This piece on Degas succeeds as both an analytical and a personal essay, revealing that criticism can be exciting and humorous. Authoritative and well-researched, the essay demonstrates both a command of the subject and the principles of good writing, asking key questions about the art and answering them fully.”