National Gallery show spotlights Degas’ plucky, mysterious ‘Little Dancer’

Dance critic July 17, 2014

That little know-it-all, age 14.

She is part thinker, part statue of liberty. She is as beloved as the Thinker and the Statue of Liberty. And yet: her ennui. So French. So chic.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

Contemplative and cheekily independent, Edgar Degas’ “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” ignores us with her narrowed eyes. She’s absorbed in her own mystery.

On Wednesday, a group of children filed into Gallery 83 of the National Gallery of Art’s West Building with a tour guide. Gazing out of her glass case, spindly legs firmly planted under her tulle skirt, “Little Dancer” caught their eyes immediately. Two small girls holding hands lagged behind the others, studying their tutu-clad counterpart over their shoulders as they were led to the Van Goghs.

A man in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt approached the case to examine the sculpture from all sides, his nose inches from the glass.

The National Gallery has had “Little Dancer,” created by Degas between 1878 and 1881, on display as part of its permanent collection since 2002. It is the centerpiece of its Degas holdings, among the world’s largest. But the popular sculpture is about to get a bigger spotlight. Capitalizing on the Kennedy Center musical “Little Dancer,” which is inspired by Degas and the teen model who posed for him and opens Oct. 25, the gallery has announced an exhibit highlighting the piece.

The exhibit, on view Oct. 5 through Jan. 11, will include 11 additional ballet-themed works by Degas — sculptures, oils and works on paper. All are works from the National Gallery’s collections, with the exception of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “The Dance Class (Ecole de Danse),” a bright, busy oil painting crowded with young women preparing to rehearse. A couple of dancers descend into the studio on a spiral staircase that Alfred Hitchcock would love.

Did Degas spark the film director’s fascination with stairs as a bridge between two worlds, even heaven and hell? Perhaps Hitchcock tips his hat to Degas in his very first film, “The Pleasure Garden,” from 1925, with leering dandies eyeing showgirls’ legs and dancers clattering down a spiral staircase into the bowels of the theater.

Certainly, the dark underworld of the Paris Opera Ballet intrigued Degas more than what was happening onstage. In terms of artistry, he was witnessing a low point in French dance, after the peak of romanticism in the 1840s and before the Ballets Russes arrived in the early 1900s.

He ignored the stars and focused on the bottom-rank unknowns. He was intrigued by the moment of becoming, as ancient Greek artists were fascinated by the unformed bodies of boy athletes that just hinted at the potential for greatness. (One of Degas’ earliest paintings is “Young Spartans Exercising,” from 1860.) Few artists before Degas paid any attention to the “petits rats,” the term by which the youngest students of the French academy are still known today. They came from mostly poor families. They were pursued by top-hatted patrons who haunted the hallways and didn’t have art on their minds.

Did Degas have more than art on his mind?

If anything illicit went on between him and his young models, including Marie van Goethem, who posed for “Little Dancer,” he was discreet about it. No evidence has come to light, says Kimberly A. Jones, the National Gallery’s associate curator of French paintings, which she says is telling: “Artists are horrible gossips.”

The dancers’ life he memorialized in hundreds of works was one of dedication and passion, about which the reclusive, prolific Degas knew more than a little. But it was also a life of drudgery and creepiness.

You needed a strong backbone to survive.

This is what Degas gave his “Little Dancer.”

The artist known for capturing so many subjects in lively motion — dancers­, horses, nudes — froze what is arguably his most famous work in upright stillness. He draws our eye to her firm spine by the way she throws her shoulders back, clasping her hands tightly behind her, lengthening her torso. This is not a dance position; it’s a deviation, even a rebellion. She is opening and stretching her shoulders in a way that feels good to a dancer seeking a moment’s freedom from the dictates of technique.

Like her, Degas deviated from dictates. For the only sculpture displayed in his lifetime, he didn’t create a voluptuous figure in marble or bronze; he used beeswax over a steel armature to mold a skinny child with a soft little belly. (About that belly: Degas knew, as any ballet teacher knows, how hard it is to get young students to firm their tummy muscles.) He had a Parisian dollmaker craft her head of real human hair and her fluffy skirt of tulle and cotton netting.

In recent years, National Gallery of Art staff has discovered through radiographs that he filled out her skeleton with random junk. He stuffed her arms with paint brushes; there’s a metal spring in her neck.

But is she truly still? The girl’s arms, hands and interlaced fingers are quiet. Look closely, though, and you’ll see her right pinky is slightly lifted, caught in mid-wiggle.

Sly thing. Little bossypants.

“She’s timeless,” marvels Daphne S. Barbour, a senior object conservator at the gallery. She is standing by the “Little Dancer” as she has countless times before, watching the girl’s mysterious, magnetic effect on the visitors in Gallery 83.

“She is more than 100 years old, but she is absolutely identifiable to us.”

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