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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Still Casting a Spell

Against the odds, Degas' 'Little Dancer' bronze has become a favorite of collectors, art lovers and young girls around the globe.

May 07, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

She isn't very pretty and she certainly isn't unique.

Edgar Degas' "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen" -- a 4-foot-tall statue of a ballerina, complete with a muslin tutu and satin hair ribbon -- exists in 31 guises. The only version made by the artist is the original wax figure. All the others, two in plaster and 28 in bronze, were cast after his death.

That ought to remove the "Little Dancer" from the ranks of the world's most highly valued artworks -- art fans and the market usually put a premium on refined beauty, rarity and the artist's personal touch.

But with chin held high, hands clasped behind her back and legs stretched in a relaxed fourth position, the "Little Dancer" has won the minds of scholars, the hearts of the public and the pocketbooks of wealthy collectors, who have paid up to $12.3 million for the honor of owning one of the bronzes. The same version that commanded that record price in 1999 will go on the auction block today at Christie's New York in its spring sale of Impressionist and Modern art. Christie's officials hope the sculpture will set another record but are hedging their bets with a pre-sale estimate of $8 million to $12 million.

"Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen," or "La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans," as she is known in France, is an art world phenomenon. The subject of dozens of scholarly articles and a children's book, she is the poster child for new sculpture galleries at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the cover girl for the catalog of "Degas in Bronze: The Complete Sculptures," a traveling exhibition from the collection of the Museum of Art in Sao Paulo, Brazil, which will appear at the San Diego Museum of Art from June 28 to Sept. 28.

Just last week the sculpture came to life in "La Petite Danseuse," a new ballet at the Paris Opera. With a cast of 60, the ballet tells the story of Marie van Goetham, who modeled for the sculpture. One of three sisters recruited as petits rats, a term still used to describe child ballerinas in Paris, Goetham grew up in poverty and is thought to have been prostituted by her mother, a cabaret entertainer. In the ballet, Marie, her sister Antoinette and their mother all land in jail after Antoinette is convicted of robbing her lover, with the help of the other two women.

The sad tale only enhances the appeal of the sculpture, says Richard Kendall, a leading Degas authority. He and art historian Jill DeVonyar are guest curators of "Degas and the Dance," an exhibition that opened at the Detroit Institute of Arts last fall and will wind up its final engagement at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Sunday.

"The 'Little Dancer' remains persistently, stubbornly popular in the general imagination and in collectors' minds," Kendall says. "The fact that the little girl came from a colorful family does not seem to have impinged on this fame and may even have extended it. Collectors are still fascinated by the physical object, as they have reason to be. It's a stupendous tour de force both technically and conceptually."

Academics and the public respond to the sculpture because "it draws both the eye and the mind," says Suzanne Langley, a specialist in 19th century French sculpture who teaches art history at the University of Pennsylvania.

And familiarity seems to breed love, not contempt, for the "Little Dancer." In a league with such famous multiples as Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker" and "The Kiss" and Constantin Brancusi's "Bird in Space," she is on view at 20 museums -- including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, the Ny Carls- berg Glyptotek in Copenhagen and the Tate Gallery in London.

At the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, which has an extensive Degas collection, a bronze "Little Dancer" attracts young and old, but particularly aspiring ballerinas, says chief curator Sara Campbell. "Little girls love to pose beside her and have their pictures taken. She's an icon."

That wasn't always the case.

Degas, a leading French Impressionist who was born in 1834, was known as a painter of dancers and racehorses, but he modeled his favorite subjects in wax in his studio. "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen," made in 1878-81, is his largest sculpture by far and the only one he exhibited. It made its debut -- as a wax figure with a cloth costume, real hair ribbon and ballet slippers and a wig thought to be made of horse hair -- at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881. (The casts render the bodice, shoes and hair in metal or plaster.)

The highly unorthodox sculpture created a sensation "exceptional even in the turbulent history of Impressionist art" and remarkable in its "sheer range and diversity," Kendall says.

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