We all know Edgar Degas’ exquisite portraits of elegant ballerinas, channeling the grace and ethereal beauty of his subjects. Among his most famous works, one stands out: not a pastel drawing, but a sculpture of a teenage girl with her head raised and hands behind her back. Numerous bronze casts of Little Dancer of Fourteen Years can be found in a number of museums and private collections both in Europe and the US. However, the story behind it gives a much darker undertone to the image of a teenage ballerina.
Edgar Degas’ Little Rat Causing a Scandal
Although as human beings we are used to admiring sculptural portraits (especially those of kids), in this case, it is hard to shake off the feeling of something being fundamentally wrong here. Sure, one can explain it with the child’s unwillingness to rehearse long hours, being bored with endless pliées and battements. Still, the girl’s facial features do not seem to be exactly pleasant, there is something disproportional about her face and something unnatural in her posture.
Edgar Degas’ contemporaries shared this view as well, although to a much harsher degree. In the Parisian press of the time, the figure was called a rat, a monkey, a flower of precocious depravity, an illustration of the degeneracy of the modern world. The reaction was so intense that Edgar Degas decided to never show his sculptural works to the public again, preferring to exhibit pastels instead.
In fact, the bronze versions of the Little Dancer were commissioned after Degas’ death by his heirs. The original work, which miraculously survived although is not presented today due to concerns for its condition, was made out of painted wax, with a real muslin tutu, satin slippers, and a wig made of real human hair. But what was the idea behind the choice of the material, and why were the public so repulsed by it?
Ballet Was Not What You Think It Was
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Today we see ballet dancing as some high-brow form of exquisite art. Although in the nineteenth century it was indeed intended as entertainment for the elites, the background of it had a darker side, which involved classism and exploitation. For many working-class girls, the ballet was a chance to break out from the life of poverty and misery. This chance, however, was less about dancing and more about finding a wealthy sponsor. The foyer de la dance, the backroom of the Paris Opera Ballet, functioned not only as a socializing space and place for rehearsals but as an elite brothel for art patrons. There, the dancers had to endure harassment and frequently engage in sex work in order to provide for themselves and get a chance to climb up the social ladder.
Young girls like the one depicted by Edgar Degas, who just started their training, were called petits rats and treated inhumanely. Coming from poor backgrounds, unable to stand up for themselves, they were subject not only to hours of exhausting rehearsals but to all kinds of exploitation as well. Apart from prostitution, many of them were involved in small crimes such as pickpocketing, just to make ends meet. In most cases, dreams of making a career and securing a wealthy stable life remained nothing more than dreams. The petits rats were easily discarded and thrown out of the Paris Opera Ballet for every small disobedience. Thus, ballet dancing was far from an elite occupation. It was rather a conveyor belt of suffering, pain, and crushed hopes.
Animal Traits and Human Personalities
But there is more to the sculpture than a sad story of exploitation and a fight for survival. It seems that Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was not just a portrait of one of the unlucky petit rats from the Paris Opera Ballet, but a glimpse into the world of crime and an illustration for popular scientific theories of the time. Notice how the critics were referring to the statue: calling her a rat, a monkey, or a downright degenerate. They were not simply expressing their own disgust, but indicating the animalistic, or primitive features of the girl.
The idea of identifying human facial features with those of animals and judging characters based on that was far from new even in Edgar Degas’ times. Some of the earliest accounts of such theories were attributed to Aristotle, among others. Many ancient scholars and philosophers were looking for the similarities between human and natural worlds, and the reflections of these worlds on one another.
During the sixteenth century, an Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta published a treatise called De Humana Physiognomonia (The Human Physiognomy) in which he stated that every kind of animal has its own features, corresponding to its vices and virtues. Such features could be also found in humans, thus, according to della Porta, a personality of a man should be similar to those of an animal he resembles. During the Renaissance, the supposed similarities between human and animal traits were used as visual codes in paintings and sculpture, especially when it came to portraying the nobility.
The Equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by the Italian sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio is a perfect illustration of such an approach. Del Verrocchio deliberately made his subject’s head look similar to the one of an eagle to indicate Colleoni’s nobility and mercilessness. Later on, with Charles Darwin publishing his work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859, the connection between animal and human in the public mind became fixed and stable. It seemed that the theory of evolution could explain the animalistic features of humans.
What Makes One a Criminal?
The most prominent figure in the theory of physiognomy was the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso. For Lombroso, criminals simply belonged to an earlier stage of human development. He insisted that violent criminals were similar to apes on a biological level, having massive jaws, high cheekbones, flat chins, and arms too long for a normal human body. Among other questionable points, Lombroso insisted that sex workers were by nature built differently from honest women.
According to him, they were also similar to human ancestors, with their legs and feet suitable for climbing and ape-like postures. Another feature of a born criminal was its similarity to a rat, with a chin too small and sharp incisor teeth. Already disturbing by modern standards, Lombroso’s theories went even further, proclaiming non-Western people, in particular those of African and Asian origin, as beings of lower stage of biological development than white people, and thus being much more prone to criminal behaviors.
It is known that Edgar Degas was interested in criminology in general and in Lombroso’s theories in particular. Given that, we can assume that the public hostile reaction was a result of the artist’s deliberate effort. His intention was not to create a beautiful work of art but to illustrate the social disorder of his time. To make his intentions even clearer, Degas specifically decided to present the sculpture in a room with his other drawings of criminals, emphasizing their animalistic and degenerate facial features.
The most famous one, Criminal Physiognomies (1881), was an illustration made during a murder trial. The two suspects, Emile Abadie and Michael Knobloch were accused of murdering a grocer’s boy. Degas was present during the three months of trial. The artist made several sketches of Abadie and Knobloch, emphasizing their small foreheads and jaws, the features that could also be found on the face of a Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.
Thus, Degas decided to depict not a mischievous teenage ballerina, but a born criminal. Moreover, for the presentation of the original sculpture Degas commissioned a glass case, similar to those used to display objects in anatomical museums, not art galleries. This also explains the choice of the initial material. Degas was aiming for absolute life-likeness, and for that reason, he used painted wax, real hair, and fabric. No wonder the public was shocked. Despite the fact that the effect was clearly intentional, the backlash was so severe that the piece remained the only sculpture made by Degas presented to the public during his lifetime.
The Real Little Dancer of Edgar Degas
As we see, Edgar Degas was intentionally looking for a model with what was believed to be distinct facial features of a born criminal, prone to deceit and disobedience. Marie van Goethem, who was eleven and not fourteen by the time Degas first met her, came from a humble background. Her mother was a laundress and her sister allegedly made a living through sex work, an occupation too common for the impoverished women and girls at the time. Another curious fact is that Marie van Goethem was in fact an associate of the abovementioned murderer Emile Abadie, also a subject of Degas’ work, who apparently was in a relationship with Marie’s sister.
It is unknown how real Marie van Goethem looked like and whether Edgar Degas enhanced some of her facial features to better fit his ideas. To no surprise, Van Goethem did not benefit from her affiliation with Degas at all, disappearing from the pages of history soon after their encounter. In 1882, she was dismissed from the Paris Opera Ballet, by some accounts, for being late to rehearsals, and by others, for engaging in sex work outside of the institution. That was, unfortunately, the fate of hundreds of petit rats, who never managed to achieve their dreams and goals.
In 2014 the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. staged a musical Little Dancer, loosely based on the story of Van Goethem. In the first act, the grown-up Van Goethem visits Degas’ studio after learning about the artist’s death. There, she meets Mary Cassatt, a famous Impressionist and a friend of Degas. The two were indeed friends in real life, although their relationship was strained in later years due to Degas’ overt antisemitism. In Degas’ studio, fictional Marie van Goethem remembers her teenage years and her meeting with the artist. Of course, such a story has little to do with reality, presenting a romantic fantasy based on a rather unsettling story. What is most remarkable about the case of the Little Dancer of Fourteen Years is how the context of its creation alters the understanding of the work completely, and provides an unexpected twist to a seemingly simple story.