Etude de nu pour la 'Petite danseuse de quatorze ans' is a sculpture that stands over two feet tall, showing what is probably Edgar Degas' most celebrated theme: the ballerina. This sculpture is a nude showing a figure that relates to arguably the most famous work that Degas created, his Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, of which the wax original is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., while casts are in a range of museums including the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Meanwhile, casts of Etude de nu pour la 'Petite danseuse de quatorze ans' are owned by ten museums including the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, the National Museum and Galleries of Wales, the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh and the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, the sculpture to which Etude de nu pour la 'Petite danseuse de quatorze ans' is linked, was the only sculpture that Degas publically exhibited during his lifetime, showing it at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881. Although Degas is known to have had other sculptural works on display in his home and studio, they were nonetheless kept from the public eye. This has prompted a great deal of interest in his relationship with the medium. Etude de nu pour la 'Petite danseuse de quatorze ans', as the title suggests, has often been considered a preliminary work, as Degas evolved the composition of his Petite danseuse. However, certain differences between the two compositions, aside from the lack of clothing, mean that this sculpture stands as an autonomous work in its own right. Interestingly, a theory has been mooted that Etude de nu pour la 'Petite danseuse de quatorze ans' was created for the great American patron of Degas, Louisine Havemeyer, who had hoped to acquire the Petite danseuse itself (see S. Glover Lindsay, D.S. Barbour & S.G. Sturman, Edgar Degas: Sculpture, Washington, D.C., 2010, p. 144). However, other sources discussed in the same publication have explained that analysis of the wax original of Etude de nu pour la 'Petite danseuse de quatorze ans' has characteristics that imply that it dates from around the same period as Petite danseuse de quatorze ans.
In the recent monograph on Degas' sculptures published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., which holds an unparalleled collection of his sculptural work - as well as the bronze casts, they hold many wax originals - it has been pointed out that the incredible delicacy of the surface of the wax of Etude de nu pour la 'Petite danseuse de quatorze ans' implies that it is more than a mere study. Similarly, looking closely at the two works, the differences as well as the similarities between the Etude and the Petite danseuse become apparent, reinforcing the idea that this is a discreet work in its own right. The Washington monograph suggested that the dancer in this nude study may be younger than the one in the Petite danseuse. Likewise, it is observed that the position of her right foot has been altered, Degas placing it at a more diagonal angle than that of its slightly larger sister sculpture. Indeed, the authors point out that 'The pose is more complex than the dressed figure's. Her canted verticality and hipshot stance are more pronounced, with her torso subtly shifting position' (ibid., p. 148). They even suggest that the adjusted foot position may mark Degas' own rejection of that shown in the clothed sculpture, implying that the Etude may well improve upon, and therefore postdate, the Petite danseuse. The model for the Petite danseuse is thought to have been Marie van Goethem, an identification in part based on an inscription on one of the drawings showing her from a variety of angles adopting this 'casual fourth' position (see ibid., 127). The Washington catalogue implies that the pose and even the model for Etude de nu pour la 'Petite danseuse de quatorze ans' may not have been the same as that of the Petite danseuse. However, there are marked similarities between the sculptures and, when looking at the drawings that Degas appears to have created from life of the clothed and nude little ballerina, there is likewise a strong link between them. This is especially visible in a comparison between the drawing of three nude studies in a private collection and the similar composition in a picture of a clothed ballerina shown from three angles, in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. When Degas exhibited his Petite danseuse de quatorze ans at the sixth Impressionist Exhibition, where it featured alongside works by Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro and others, it met with an incredible array of emotions, ranging from high praise and acclaim to disgust at its uncanny appearance. This was in part because of its naturalism and in part because of the presence of clothing and human hair, which was seen to relate to the religious sculptures of churches in Spain, for instance, where real crowns of thorns and linens are sometimes placed on carved wood, blurring the boundaries between our world and theirs. In the case of Etude de nu pour la 'Petite danseuse de quatorze ans', despite the nudity of the figure, it retains an impressive realism, showing a figure adopting her ballet pose that is a far cry from the over-idealising images of the academicians of Degas' day. He has discarded any received notion of beauty, favouring instead a more honest depiction of reality. In depicting this balletic pose, Degas was exploring the concept of grace and poise that also underpinned his paintings and pastels of the ballet. Elegant movements were crystallised in these works, which are the heirs to an ancient tradition. When Lousisine Havemeyer asked Degas why he focussed on ballet dancers so extensively, he replied, 'Because, madame, it is all that is left us of the combined movement of the Greeks' (Degas, quoted in R. Gordon & A. Forge, Degas, London, 1988, p. 264). It is the timeless thread of beauty that runs through the entire history of Western art that Degas explored in these frozen glimpses of the ballet. Instead of creating likenesses of goddesses on Olympus, though, he did this by observing the women of this Earth, capturing their movements and immortalising them, granting them an incredible apotheosis.