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2 THE MAKING OF THE SCULPTURE A wax dancer whose naturalism is strangely attractive, troubling,... I Degas was effectively the founder of a distinguished line of untaught sculptorpainters in the modern
2 THE MAKING OF THE SCULPTURE A wax dancer whose naturalism is strangely attractive, troubling,... I Degas was effectively the founder of a distinguished line of untaught sculptorpainters in the modern age, soon to include Paul Gauguin and, most famously, to be followed by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse in the early twentieth century. As an amateur embarking on the first large-scale sculpture of his career, Degas - like his successors - was obliged to confront the simplest practical matters as well as the grander pretensions of his project. Some of the former have already been touched on; the selection of a model from among the rats at the Opera and the choice of her pose, for example, and the use to be made of the artist's pre-existing stock of drawn and painted images. At a technical level, there was the challenge of constructing the meter-high wax figure - a formidable task for a virtual beginner - and of dressing it in specially made, reduced-scale tutu, bodice, wig, and dancing shoes. Common to all these considerations was an even more fundamental question: that of the status of Degas' semi-private modeling venture in the very competitive world of nineteenth-century sculpture. Was Degas making this image of a young dancer to assist him with his picture making, in the way that his later wax horses, ballerinas, and bather-figures appear to have been conceived, or was it intended from the start for public display, as a bold intervention in the sculptural exchanges of his day? If the latter, how well acquainted was Degas with the crosscurrents of opinion in the contemporary medium, and how appropriate or otherwise was his contribution to them? In short, was the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen merely an eccentric studio experiment, or was it to be an informed, radical, and eye-catching work of three-dimensional art? In his 1976 monograph on the artist, Charles Millard asserted that Degas' sculpture is a very paradigm of the development of sculpture in nineteenthcentury France, a resume of its statements and problems, its exploratory and modern strains. 2 Among the few authors to have attempted to locate the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen in the era's broader sculptural concerns - which he groups together as the monumental, the classical, and the romantic and contemporary - Millard stressed the historic roots of Degas' formation and established a number of pioneering links with the technical debates of the age. The extent of Degas' participation in this milieu, however, has remained a matter of uncertainty for many, exacerbated by his reputation as an untaught modeler and - with the solitary exception of the Little Dancer - a reluctant exhibitor. In recent years there has been a decisive shift in our perception of Degas the amateur sculptor. If, as we increasingly believe, Degas' experiments in wax, clay, and mixed materials were openly conducted, often in the company of friends who were professionals; if certain of his finished models were proudly presented in his apartment and almost casually accessible in his studio to visiting artists, critics, and 2 5 Fig. i i Jean-Auguste Bane, Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide, 1837, bronze, 17 3 /4 in. (4S cm), Musee des Arts decoratifs, Paris. dealers; if several attempts were made during Degas' lifetime to cast his wax and clay sculptures into more durable materials; and if the reputation of some of his three-dimensional achievements - most notably the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen - persisted throughout his career, then the image of Degas as a sculptural recluse must finally be reassessed.' As our understanding of French sculpture in the second half of the nineteenth century has deepened, so Millard's claim for the paradigmatic status of Degas' work has been progressively vindicated. Whether charting the evolution of realism or studying sculpture within the Impressionist enterprise, following the arguments that raged around polychromy or the decline of the public monument, the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is encountered near the center of each argument or at the threshold of innovation. In retrospect, Degas' fabrication between 1878 and 188 i of a costumed wax statuette of an ordinary Parisian adolescent seems almost prescient, anticipating and simultaneously embodying a revolution in sculpture and a radical re-evaluation of its relationship to the spectator and the material world. Far from being prophetic, of course, the making of the Little Dancer was a precisely calculated maneuver by an artist conversant with many of the personalities - including sculptors and critics, theorists and collectors - with whom he was engaged. While advances have been made in the integration of Degas' sculpture with the art of his fellow Impressionists, insufficient attention has been paid to his documented and sometimes enthusiastic engagement with practitioners from more conservative traditions. Not only did Degas regularly scrutinize the Salons and the International Exhibitions of these years (as late as 189i, Berthe Morisot reported that he still stayed in the Salon from morning till night ) but he could look back on first-hand acquaintance with a range of professional and occasional sculptors, from his friends Dr. Camus and Gustave Moreau to the aspiring Joseph Cuvelier and the celebrated Henri Chapu, while his awareness of the achievements of Carpeaux, Dubois, Meissonier, and Bartholome is well attested.' In the present study, we can only single out a few of these strands, emphasizing those largely overlooked in earlier examinations of the Little Dancer and those most closely related to its manufacture. But by concentrating on prominent commentators and sculptors or works that Degas is known to have encountered, we can significantly advance Millard's claim and locate the Little Dancer more securely in its time. Jean-Auguste Barre's study Marie Taglioni in La Sylphide (fig. i i) is a winsome reminder of one of the crucial precedents Degas must have consulted as he began the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: that of the existing tradition of ballet sculpture. Barre was a minor figure with a modest reputation for medals and portrait busts, and his depictions of two leading ballerinas of the day, Taglioni and Fanny Elssler (fig. 12), tended to reiterate the conventional view of the dancer and her attributes. In both sculptures, the public spectacle of the ballet has provided the subject, as a daintily dressed etoile steps through her performance on a miniature stage and the intricacies of her costume are itemized for our delight. The figure of Elssler is conspicuous in this respect, with a finely worked silk and lace outfit appropriate to her Spanish role in Le Diable boiteux and minutely modeled bouquets of roses at her feet, and it is no surprise to find that this elegant object was also produced as a luxurious silvered bronze.' The two works are thought to have been unveiled at the Salon of 1837, when Taglioni and Elssler were both in their mid twenties, representing the dancers at the height of their celebrity rather than in a moment of obscure apprenticeship, like that chosen by Degas for his studies of Marie van Goethem. Despite these fundamental differences, a substantial link with Degas can 2 6 Fig. 12 Jean-Auguste Barre, Fanny Elssler, 1837, silvered bronze, 16/8 in. (42.9 cm), The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mrs. Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. he established in the case of each of Barre's sculptures, through the family of his long-established friends, the Rouarts. The brothers Alexis and Henri Rouart were collectors of wide and imaginative taste, amassing Egyptian mummies and Tanagra figurines, lithographs by Daumier and paintings by Corot, Millet, and the I mpressionists, which they famously made available to visitors young and old.' A confirmed bachelor, Degas regarded their apartments as extensions of his home, and it was there that he would have become familiar with both Barre images, a bronze cast of the figure of Taglioni in Alexis' collection and the original plaster statuette of Elssler among Henri's extensive holdings. Given that the two brothers were also ardent collectors of pictures by Degas himself, with a pronounced preference for his ballet scenes, the opportunity for direct comparison of the dance imagery of successive generations - not just for the Rouarts but for their visiting artist-friend - must have been continuous and irresistible. Predictable though they may be, Barre's bronzes remind us that ballet and sculpture enjoyed a subtle and often reciprocal association throughout much of the nineteenth century. As we have seen, dance pupils were often urged to emulate the great pictures and sculptures of the past: in 1820, Charles Blasis had demanded that A dancer should be able, at any moment, to provide a model for a painter or sculptor, words that were closely echoed in Georges Duval's pedagogical text published shortly before the making of the Little Dancers In their working lives, dancers found themselves in frequent juxtaposition with their sculptural counterparts, most obviously in the figures that ornamented the facade and interior of the rue Le Peletier theater and the Gamier Opera, but also in certain of their everyday rehearsal rooms. An anonymous lithograph from Charivari of 1846 (fig. 13) shows one such encounter, where a rat and her companions inspect a bust by Houdon of the dancer Jacqueline Guimard, while puzzling over the practice of recording celebrated ballerinas without showing their legs.' Such a bust is known to have been present in the rue Le Peletier dance foyer, appearing in numerous prints of the scene and - as a curious, halfremembered variant - in a fan painting by Degas from the late 187os. 1 ' Visitors to the Palais Gamier were regularly and publicly exposed to Carpeaux's larger-thanlife-size The Dance, whose naked and very unballetic marble dancers scandalized Paris when they first appeared in One consequence of the notoriety of the work was Carpeaux's decision to capitalize on his fame by supervising casts and reduced-scale replicas of The Dance in a variety of media. Another of Carpeaux's creations, the portrait bust of Eugenic Fiocre (the dancer Degas had painted in the 186os) was similarly produced in a number of variants, including the marble shown at the 1870 Salon, a plaster now in the Musee d'orsay, and a more popular reduction in terracotta. 12 Drawn to it perhaps by nostalgia, Degas himself apparently acquired a copy of the latter at some unspecified date, Daniel Halevy telling us that the artist would still caress it with affection in his half-blind old age. 1 3 Degas' documented awareness of the existing patterns of dance sculpture, from classical prototypes to works by a wide variety of his immediate contemporaries, gives added purposefulness to his own achievement in the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Far from being overshadowed by his antecedents, Degas seems to have reversed the majority of their assumptions, from such fundamental questions as their choice of subject, medium, and finish to the means of presenting the completed object to the public. Where Barre had opted for a moment of spectacle, Degas chose the banality of the rehearsal room; where a product of Romanticism, such as Francisque Joseph Duret's acclaimed Dancing Neapolitan 2 7 I Fig. 13 Anon., The Opera in the Nineteenth Century, lithograph, from Charivari, 21 February, Boy of 1833, explored the lyrical, pantheistic energies of the dance, Degas' figure emphasized inertia; and where the mannered classicism of James Pradier's Dance with a Scarf exploited the sinuousness of bronze, the Little Dancer stressec coarseness of surface and quotidian emotion. Closer to the historical example o Barre, Degas again rejected the cabinet scale and implicit decorativeness of hip output, along with the cult of personality it entailed. Houdon, Barre, anc Carpeaux had all - in their different registers - immortalized the celebrities o their day or aspired to embody the spirit of the dance itself (Houdon's bust in th( dance foyer was named after the muse of the dance, Terpsichore). By contrast, the Little Dancerwas anonymous and insignificant, modeled on a scale that was neithe charmingly miniature nor grandiose, and made in materials that were defiantb resistant to most forms of replication. His image is particular, domestic, an( unyielding, juxtaposing the brute facts of sculpture with the daily realities of th( dance for the first time in the history of either medium. If painted representation of such subjects had become almost commonplace by this date, we search in vail for their equivalents in three dimensions, either at the Salon or in the mor informal products of artists' studios. Indeed, so radical was Degas' departure tha it was more than a generation before other sculptors followed his lead, when th likes of Rupert Carabin, Pavel Troubetzkoi, and Leonetto Cappiello extended h~ examination of the less decorous world of the dance into the vernacular of the, own age. 15 A further consideration uniting the depiction of the dance with the wide issues of sculpture, and of largely overlooked significance in the case of the Litt Dancer Aged Fourteen, was that of the depiction of infants, children, an adolescents. The mid century saw an extraordinary proliferation of such image not just in painted family portraits and instructive prints, but in reliefs, marbl carvings, cast bronzes, polished marbles, and monuments on almost every scab Perhaps encouraged by the reception of Francois Joseph Bosio's full-size Hen IV as a Child, shown as a plaster in 1822 and cast in silver by order of Louis XVII renderings of historic and exemplary youths became a regular feature at tl annual state-sponsored Salon. Bosio's decision to present Henri in childhoc and wearing appropriate sixteenth-century doublet and hose resulted in a fon that is oddly - and probably coincidentally - analogous to Degas' Little Dance despite the emphatic historicism and sumptuous finish of the earlier wor Nearer to Degas' own day in style of costume, if not in pose, was Carpeaua marble group The Prince Imperial and His Dog Nero of 1865, a work commission( by the Emperor that shows the eight-year-old prince at natural scale, clad contemporary jacket and loose trousers. 17 During the 1870s, this trend towa informality embraced the children of the middle classes and even the picturesqi poor, most controversially in works like Vincenzo Gemito's bronzes of ha; naked urchins and Neapolitan fisherboys. Several of the sculptors who achieve fame with their representations of children belonged to Degas' generation were known to him personally, like the marble carver Henri Chapu, who h been part of the same circle at the Villa Medici in Rome during Degas' Itali sojourn. When Chapu's life-size Young Boy was exhibited at the Salon of 18; it was widely praised for its easy naturalism, one critic claiming, It is perfect. the marble is treated with extreme suppleness and beneath the folds of cloth ~ sense a body. 19 Given their earlier association and his own current engageme with the Little Dancer, Degas would surely have taken note of this confide realistically clothed vision of precocious manhood, if only to define the techni and stylistic distance he had traveled from his former colleague. 28 Fig. 14 Paul Dubois, Florentine Singer of the Fifteenth Century, 1865, silvered bronze, 61 in. (1.55 m.), Musee d'orsay, Paris. Arguably the most critically approved and popularly acclaimed emblem of youth in the years immediately prior to the Little Dancer, however, was Paul Dubois' life-size Florentine Singer of the Fifteenth Century (fig. 14). Awarded a medal of honor when it was presented as a plaster at the 1865 Salon (the exhibition at which Degas made his own debut as a painter), the work was translated into silvered bronze by order of the state and subsequently massproduced in no less than six alternative sizes by the Barbedienne foundry and three reduced-scale versions in terracotta by the Manufacture de Sevres. 20 Installed in the Musee du Luxembourg, which contained the foremost collection of modern painting and sculpture in Paris, Dubois' figure won over a range of opinion by combining a high degree of finish with a relaxed demeanor, and a picturesque theme with evident wholesomeness. This fusion of qualities was specifically welcomed by its audience, Paul Mantz (who was to become one of the harsher critics of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen) claiming that the head, a happy mingling of rusticity and finesse, is really that of a Florentine of the glorious age: the body, supple and nervous, is full of youth and elegance. 21 As with Bosio's Henri IV as a Child, we can hardly overlook certain superficial similarities between this icon of adolescence and Degas' wax statuette; though Dubois' subject was male, he displays a conspicuous pair ofbestockinged legs and a finely detailed costume, while his broadly symmetrical pose depends on a distribution of weight that is generically akin to that of the Little Dancer. Separated by more than a decade, the two works nevertheless share an ambition to represent the qualities of incipient adulthood in a single, resonant image, an identity of purpose that Degas may have signaled in his witty echoes of the cadences of Dubois' title. 22 The possibility that the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was a self-conscious, even mischief-making response to the renowned Florentine Singer of the Fifteenth Century - and that Degas was aware of more general parallels between Dubois' career and his own - deserves consideration for a number of reasons. Paul Valery tells us of Degas' respect in later life for Dubois' massive equestrian statue ofjoan of Arc (a youthful heroine of another age), one of very few specific works of contemporary sculpture the artist is known to have admired. Born just five years earlier than Degas into a comparable bourgeois family, Paul Dubois preceded him at the classically based Lycee Louis-le-Grand and likewise spent a brief spell at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, then followed the younger artist in several years of independently financed study in Italy. If we cannot confirm Jeanne Fevre's assertion that the two men met in Rome in 1859, when Degas is said to have mixed with Leon Bonnat, Gustave Moreau, Georges Bizet, Dubois and Chapu, it is beyond doubt that they developed a similar passion for Italian Renaissance art and planned nearidentical works - such as their variants on the theme of a striding, youthful John the Baptist - at this time. 25 As both attempted to establish themselves in Paris in the 186os, it was Dubois who clung most stubbornly to his Italianate roots, while sharing some common ground with Degas in his descriptive portraits of contemporary musicians, painters, and scientists, such as the bust of Louis Pasteur exhibited in Despite the divergence of their careers and public imagery, Dubois may well have represented a model of conventional technical practice of some significance for the untutored Degas, a possibility strengthened by parallels in their procedures; Dubois worked as both sculptor and painter, typically defining his three-dimensional subject in a sequence of closely related drawings; similarly, Dubois often chose to develop his forms in wax, ranging from rapidly improvised sketches that might incorporate other materials to full-scale figures; 29 and, predominantly, Dubois remained an instinctive modeler, rather than a carver of marble or stone. 27 In 1881, when the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was first unveiled, the memory of Dubois' Florentine Singer was still very much alive in the sculptural mind of Paris. Both Eugene Guillaume and Jules Buisson referred nostalgically to Dubois' figure in their Salon criticism of that year, Guillaume noting its persistent but positive influence on younger artists and Buisson approving
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