Hilaire-Germain- Edgar Degas


The three studies on this sheet depict the teenage dancer Marie van Goethem and were produced in preparation for Degas’s celebrated wax sculpture Little Dancer, Fourteen Years Old (National Gallery, Washington, DC). When that work was shown at the sixth Impressionist exhibition of 1881, the artist’s inclusion of a wig and a fabric bodice and skirt caused a sensation. Degas made numerous studies of Marie between 1878 and 1880. Here he portrayed her from three different angles, attempting to understand the figure in the round in preparation for sculpting it. As the chalk strokes show, her foreshortened left foot posed a problem when seen from behind, as did her bent arms in profile.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas
French; 1834–1917
Three Studies of a Dancer, ca. 1880
Black, pink, and white pastel on light brown paper


Degas interest in ballet dancers was really an interest in the female body. Not in an idealized context, but in the efforts and contortions of it before, during, and after the dance. This large sheet is one of a group of informal appraisals of a teenage dancer or opera rat, as they were known, named Marie von Goethem. The result of this campaign of study was the creation of the only sculpture Degas exhibited publicly, his little dancer, age 14. A figure in colored wax, three feet tall, and augmented with real hair, silk ribbon, and a linen bodice and muslin skirt, shown at the 1881 impressionist exhibition. She was reviled by the public, called ugly and vicious, in the ensuing scandal that accompanied its display. In preparation for working on the three-dimensional sculpture, Degas studied her body, both clothed in her practice skirt and naked, often recording her pose from multiple angles.

Here she's shown at rest with her legs turned out and her hands clasped behind her back. Degas did not shy away from trying to delineate the awkward areas, such as her jutting shoulder blade in the figure at left or the foreshortening of her arm in the center study, as her elbow juts out at an odd angle. Grasping the disposition of the female body in poses taken at dance rehearsals or performances, or at the bath, occupied Degas thoughts during the 1880s. In this drawing, we see the artist addressing the challenges of depicting the young working class dancer, a subject frankly depicted and poignant in its combination of strength and vulnerability.