Of the 74 sculptures that Edgar Degas modelled in wax and plasticine, which remained sufficiently intact to be cast posthumously in bronze editions, 41 are dancers, the artist’s signature, most popular subject. Many of the earliest figures, created during the late 1870s and 1880s, depict arabesques and other key dance positions that Degas also featured in his paintings and drawings. During the 1890s and into the first decade of the new century, however, the artist preferred to concentrate his studies less on the formal elements of classical dance, rather more on the dancer herself. He would observe the model in his studio engaged in casual, incidental movement, which he then caught on the wing, as it were, even if she needed to exert considerable effort to maintain the pose.
Danseuse tenant son pied droit dans la main droite is one of six sculptures in which Degas shows the dancer, with right leg bent and drawn up along her side, grasping her foot. In four such works she inspects—one may imagine—the fit of her ballet shoe, or its lacing around her ankle (Hébrard. nos. 40, 59, 67, and 69). In the present sculpture (and Hébrard, no. 68) she is instead limbering up before commencing practice.
‘The only reason that I made wax figures of animals and humans was for my own satisfaction,’ Degas explained to the journalist Thiébault- Sisson in 1897, ‘not to take time off from painting or drawing, but to give my paintings and drawings more expression, greater ardour, and more life. They are exercises to get me going… What matters to me is to express nature in all its aspects, movement in its exact truth’ (Degas, quoted in R. Kendall, ed., Degas by Himself, London & Boston, 1987, p. 246).
In 1903, Louisine Havemeyer, while visiting Degas in his studio, ‘asked the question’—she later recorded—‘Why, Monsieur Degas, do you always do ballet dancers? The quick reply was: “Because, Madame, it is all that is left us of the combined movements of the Greeks”’ (L. Havemeyer, Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector, New York, 1961, p. 256). Degas viewed modern life through the lens of a classicist, seeking everywhere the resonance of the serene and eternal values he admired in Greek and Hellenistic art. A likely inspiration for the present dancer are several sculptures in the Louvre that depict Aphrodite, goddess of love, raising her leg to adjust a sandal.
Degas’s abiding interest in the dance, moreover, and especially his fascination with the dancers themselves as they exercise and practice for the stage, stemmed from his respect—an appreciation accumulated in a lifetime of working at his own art—for the strenuous, often repetitive work that may eventually culminate in the final moment of aesthetic accomplishment. One’s dedication to the process—Degas in his late work seems to argue—is the vital measure of creativity. The means, step by step, are in every way as significant, and to be valued in their own right, as the end itself.