Degas and the dance: why the artist’s behind-the-curtain approach was revelatory

In the canon of art history, no name conjures associations of ballet more than Edgar Degas. The ballet offered the artist a subject that set him apart from the rest of the avant-garde and facilitated a complete immersion in his primary love: the depiction of the human form. Degas found infinite artistic potential in the shadowy corners of the much revered and frequented Paris Opéra, its stage wings, dressing rooms, and above all, its rehearsal studios.   

‘Degas long held the ballet world at the centre of his artistic practice. But unlike other artists, he often preferred the occurrences “behind the curtains” rather than on centre stage,’ says Adrien Meyer, Co-Chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s. 

Degas’s depictions of ballerinas, both on and offstage, have touched generations of dancers and dance enthusiasts such as the late collector and philanthropist Anne Hendricks Bass. This May, 12 works from Mrs. Bass’s collection will lead the 20th Century Evening Sale at Christie’s New York. Of the three Degas masterpieces in her collection, two embody Mrs. Bass and the artist’s shared appreciation of dance: a pastel, Danseuse attachant son chausson, and a bronze, Petite danseuse de quatorze ans. Ballet was a lifelong passion for Mrs. Bass, who studied the art form from her youth through adulthood. She made instrumental contributions to the New York City Ballet and directed the 2010 documentary Dancing Across Borders. 

‘Caught in moments of repose, the two figures in the works from the Anne H. Bass collection are rendered with an intimate accuracy,’ Adrien Meyer says. ‘The ballerina in Danseuse attachant son chausson ties her shoes in the quiet moments before the dance itself, and the Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, stands almost life-size and defiantly enters our own space.’ 

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, cast in 1927. Bronze with brown patina with muslin skirt and satin hair ribbon on wooden base. Height (excluding base) 40½ in (102.9 cm). Estimate $20,000,000-30,000,000. Offered in The Collection of Anne H. Bass in May 2022 at Christies in New York
Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, cast in 1927. Bronze with brown patina with muslin skirt and satin hair ribbon on wooden base. Height (excluding base): 40½ in (102.9 cm). Estimate: $20,000,000-30,000,000. Offered in The Collection of Anne H. Bass in May 2022 at Christie's in New York

Degas’s largest, best-known sculpture — and the only one the artist exhibited in his lifetime — Petite danseuse de quatorze ans occupies an inimitable place within modern art. This two-thirds life-size depiction of a young ballet dancer caused a sensation when the wax version was first shown in 1881 at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris. Evoking a combination of compassion and intrigue, this sculpture encapsulates the tension between artifice and reality that defines so much of his work.

Petite danseuse de quatorze ans was originally made in wax, which the artist carefully coloured to simulate real flesh. Degas finally dressed this figure with real-life accoutrements: a dancer’s cotton faille bodice, linen ballet slippers, a tarlatan tutu, as well as a wig of real hair, scooped into a braid and tied with a silk ribbon. The original wax version was not cast in bronze until after the artist’s death, when 29 casts were made, the majority of which now reside in museums across the world.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, cast in 1927. Bronze with brown patina with muslin skirt and satin hair ribbon on wooden base. Height (excluding base) 40½ in (102.9 cm). Estimate $20,000,000-30,000,000. Offered in The Collection of Anne H. Bass in May 2022 at Christies in New York
Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, cast in 1927. Bronze with brown patina with muslin skirt and satin hair ribbon on wooden base. Height (excluding base): 40½ in (102.9 cm). Estimate: $20,000,000-30,000,000. Offered in The Collection of Anne H. Bass in May 2022 at Christie's in New York

Unlike many of the dancers featured in Degas’s myriad works on this theme, the identity of the model for the Petite danseuse is known. Marie van Goethem was a ballet student at the Paris Opéra, one of the many young girls, known as ‘petits rats de l’opéra’, who sought to perform on the stage of this revered institution. Marie is thought to have also served as the model for several other pastels and paintings made around the same time.

Degas’s remarkable first foray into the medium of sculpture was accompanied by a fascinating series of drawings in charcoal, chalk, and pastel. Over the course of his research, Degas must have hit upon the pose, known as ‘casual fourth position’, that the Petite danseuse holds. Degas revelled in capturing these unselfconscious movements. He spurned the perfection of the performance, instead providing glimpses of his models caught off guard. After years studying dancers, Degas developed this pose to purposefully defy expectation or easy identification.

‘Degas long held the ballet world at the centre of his artistic practice. But unlike other artists, he often preferred the occurrences “behind the curtains” rather than on centre stage’ —Adrien Meyer

Although the lifelike quality of the sculpture’s tinted wax surface provoked some comment, the most innovative and audacious feature of the work was its incorporation of actual articles of clothing. These sartorial elements — which anticipate the use of found materials in Cubism and Dada — constituted an overt challenge to the accepted criteria of sculpture in the late nineteenth century. Many compared the dressed wax figure to a doll, puppet, or a shop mannequin. With its distinctive facial features, the Petite danseuse also represented a striking contrast to the idealised figural sculpture of Degas’s day.  

Following the 1881 Impressionist Exhibition, the wax version of the Petite danseuse remained in Degas’s studio until his death in 1917. The casting was not begun until 1918, when Degas’s heirs contracted the founder Adrien Hébrard, renowned for his high technical and artistic standards, to produce limited bronze editions of all 74 wax sculptures found during the posthumous inventory of the artist’s studio. The first complete set of bronzes, including the Petite danseuse, was finished in 1921 and purchased by Louisine Havemeyer, who donated 71 of the sculptures, including Petite danseuse to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  


Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Danseuse attachant son chausson, 1887. Pastel on buff paper. 18½ x 16⅞ in (47.5 x 42.9 cm). Estimate $4,000,000-6,000,000. Offered in The Collection of Anne H. Bass in May 2022 at Christies in New York
Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Danseuse attachant son chausson, 1887. Pastel on buff paper. 18½ x 16⅞ in (47.5 x 42.9 cm). Estimate: $4,000,000-6,000,000. Offered in The Collection of Anne H. Bass in May 2022 at Christie's in New York

The legendary Havemeyer collection also included Degas’s Danseuse attachant son chausson, an 1887 pastel, his favoured medium at the time, alive with colour, light, and vivid texture. A dancer seemingly caught unawares in an instinctive moment of pause, the protagonist of the image is still very much in a performative stance. Her legs are turned out in a pose that shows the relentless discipline of her profession.   

With her tutu and sash thrown upward, creating a dazzling halo around her, the dancer bending down to tie the ribbons on her slippers was one of Degas’s favourite and most famous views. It not only challenged him to display his virtuosity in the rendering of a foreshortened figure; it also allowed him to indulge in splendid contrasts of light and form.   

While Degas counted a number of the Opéra’s wealthy, well-connected abonnés among his closest friends, it would not be until the end of the 1880s that he was finally granted the unrestricted access to the backstage realm of the Opéra that he had so desired. By the time Degas created Danseuse attachant son chausson, his reputation as, ‘the painter of dancers,’ was firmly secured. Adrien Meyer notes, ‘So enmeshed in their world, Degas was famously caricatured on several occasions as a dancer himself.’