Edgar Degas; a Focus on Sculpture

Degas’ sculpture stands outside the mainstream of nineteenth-century French sculpture. He was never interested in creating public monuments, and, with one exception, neither did he display his sculpture publicly. The exception was The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer. It was shown in the sixth Impressionist exhibition held in Paris in 1881, but the work has little to do with Impressionism. Modeled in wax and wearing a real bodice, stockings, shoes, tulle skirt, and horsehair wig with a satin ribbon, the figure astonished Degas’ contemporaries, not only for its unorthodox use of materials, but also and above all for its realism, judged brutish by some. The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer was not seen again publicly until April 1920.

The rest of his sculpture remained a private medium, akin to sketches or drawings, in which Degas, limiting himself to a small range of subjects, explored the problems that fascinated him. The human figures often repeat the same subject, each displaying subtle variations in composition or in the dynamics of movement or of muscular tensions within the body. For many of them, the artist found a ready source of inspiration in the ballet dancers of the Paris Opéra. Others recorded women in various stages of washing and drying themselves that provided the opportunity for depicting female nudity in an unidealized fashion. The same painstaking observation went into his modeling of horses. Numerous visits to the racetrack at Longchamp were supplemented by careful scrutiny of photographs, especially the studies of horses in motion made in the 1870s and 1880s by the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904).

Upon Degas’ death in 1917, more than 150 pieces of sculpture were found in his studio. Most were of wax, clay, and plastiline. Nearly all had reached various stages of deterioration. The debate about their preservation and ultimate disposition began. Degas’ heirs were in disagreement about a great many things, but by 1918 they had decided to authorize a series of casts, or editions, of bronzes to be made from seventy-two of the small figures. Albert Bartholomé (1848–1928), a sculptor and Degas’ longtime friend, was to prepare the figures for casting, to be executed by the Paris foundry of A.-A. Hébrard et Cie.

The contract, dated May 13, 1918, stipulated that each edition would be limited to twenty casts, plus one for Adrien Hébrard (1865–1937), head of the foundry, and one for Degas’ heirs. All the bronzes were to be stamped Degas, and a method of marking the individual casts was outlined, but it was not, in fact, the one actually used. Instead, as the catalogue for the first exhibition of the bronzes in Paris (1921) stated, each sculpture was assigned a number (1–73, although in actual practice, 73, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, was not numbered), and each series of casts assigned a letter (A–T). For example, the Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot was given the number 40 in the series and, as the first cast of the figure, the letter A. The completed bronze thus bears the inscribed identification 40/A in addition to the stamp Degas and the seal of the founder (CIRE/PERDUE/A.-A.HEBRARD) within a rectangle. The series cast for the Degas family was to be marked HER.D, and the series cast for Hébrard, HER. Despite some puzzling evidence to the contrary, this system seems to have been followed by Hébrard.

The actual casting of the bronzes was chiefly the work of one of Hébrard’s employees, Albino Palazzolo (1883–1973), who was entrusted with the difficult process of making molds of the delicate original sculptures without destroying them. The molds were then used to cast master models in bronze, and these in turn were used to make the molds necessary for casting the individual waxes for the lost-wax casting of each in an edition of twenty-two bronzes.

The first, or A-letter, series of bronzes was completed before May 1921, when it was exhibited in Paris. The series was bought by Louisine Havemeyer and exhibited in New York in 1922 at the Grolier Club. All but two bronzes in the series are now in the Metropolitan Museum. Another one of the original sculptures, The Schoolgirl, was omitted from the initial series of editions. It, too, had a separate casting history.

The original sculptures, mostly of wax and long thought to have been destroyed, had in fact been preserved by Hébrard. They came to light in 1955 when they appeared in New York at Knoedler and Company, where they were offered for sale. The majority of the original sculptures (four had been destroyed) used for casting were acquired by Paul Mellon, and most of them were ultimately given to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. Three were given to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, and four to the Musée du Louvre in Paris (now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris). The master models were bought by Norton Simon and can be seen today in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

The original sculptures are quite fragile, owing in part to their media, in part to the fact that the artist’s armatures were often inadequate, and in part to Degas’ changes of mind. Further, it is known that Bartholomé prepared the sculpture for the foundry. Comparison of the bronzes with photographs of the original sculptures published in 1918–19 shows that Bartholomé did make some repairs and changes during the preparation. With the exception of The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, however, Bartholomé and Hébrard, the founder, seem to have been quite scrupulous in reproducing the originals. Some of the bronzes are complete, in both form and detail. Others, like the Horse with Head Lowered with an exposed armature in the right front leg, must have been left as they were found and reflect an accident to the original sculpture. Still others, dancers with hands left unfinished, or horses without hooves, probably record Degas’ diminished interest in a work once he had solved a problem that preoccupied him.

The titles of the Degas sculptures are, for the most part, English translations of the French names assigned to them at the time of the exhibition of the first series of bronzes in Paris at the Galerie A.-A. Hébrard in 1921. Some have since been revised, reflecting a better understanding of ballet terminology or more accurate identifications of the sculpture’s original context.

This particular bronze was gifted to and descended through our consignor’s family from Justin Thannhauser and to our knowledge has never previously been offered at auction.