When Edgar Degas’s sculpture Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen made its debut at the Sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, it was called grotesque and created an uproar. Today, the wax figure, attired in a real tulle tutu with a wig and a satin ribbon, is considered an icon of 19th-century art and is the highlight of the Degas Sculptures exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, continuing until January 4.
Little Dancer was his only sculptural work to be exhibited during his lifetime, although he created approximately 150 pieces. The AGO’s exhibition offers visitors a chance to see 73 bronzes made by the revered French artist, and is the sole Canadian stop for this collection which has not been viewed in North America until now.
Hailed as “the greatest living sculptor” by painter Auguste Renoir, Degas worked in a variety of media, including wax and clay with metal and wood armatures, creating figures in various states of form and movement. The flexibility of the chosen media allowed him to constantly reshape and remould his sculptures. The subjects of Degas’s sculptures mirrored those of his acclaimed paintings: young dancers, female bathers and racehorses.
Frequently credited and praised for his intimate and unexpected paintings of dancers—capturing them in moments of rest before going on stage, rehearsing with their arms in mid-extension, stretching or primping before a mirror—Degas’s work reflects his interest in behind-the-scenes action and the complexity of human expressions. From his paintings and drawings to his sculptures, the faces of Degas’s subjects are often frozen in cryptic expressions, allowing viewers to decide for themselves what the figure’s mood might be.
As a two-dimensional artist, Degas’s sketches, paintings, pastels, watercolours and etchings straddle the line between realism and the Impressionist movement. As a result, Degas’s work shows a skillful blending of these two art movements, creating authentic figures from his own life and experiences—including young models who would pose for him in his studio—fused with his own imaginative visions.
Although Degas’s two-dimensional works are his most recognizable artistic accomplishments, his sculptural works exhibit the same attention to detail and intimacy expressed in his drawings and paintings. As his eyesight deteriorated in the last decades of his life, Degas increasingly turned to sculpting as his primary artistic outlet.
After his death in 1917 at the age of 83, 150 of his works were removed from his studio and 73 were cast in bronze limited editions. One of only four complete sets of Degas bronzes were sold to the Ny Carlsberg Foundation in Copenhagen, later transferred to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Copenhagen. Today, the works are both a testament to and a showcase for Degas’s unique style and lasting legacy.—linda Luong