Degas exhibited only one sculpture in his lifetime; now 70 have gone on view
French impressionist Edgar Degas exhibited only one sculpture in his lifetime: “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen.” But he loved sculpting in the privacy of his studio.
In honor of the centenary of Degas’ death in 1917, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is presenting the exhibit “Taking Shape: Degas as Sculptor,” which features more than 70 bronzes cast from the artist’s original wax and clay statuettes.
“The sculptures depict three major themes: horses, dancers and bathers,” said curator Emily Talbot, adding that Degas was a complex person who liked to control his reputation, which is perhaps why he chose not to display his sculptures, although it is hard to say for sure.
“Notoriously, his friends who bought his work would bolt it to the wall so he wouldn’t take it back and try to rework it,” she said.
This obsession with his paintings also can be seen in his sculptures, which were worked and reworked over time. Talbot said Degas was interested in remaking each object as a serial form of production for its own sake. He would slightly vary the angle of a pose, the level of finish or the armature itself.
Degas started modeling in wax in the 1860s. It was a common practice in France at the time, and artists used it to produce source material for their paintings. Degas certainly did this, but many of his sculptures stand on their own thanks to cutting-edge technique, unusual materials and attention to detail.
An 1889 figure called “The Tub” was modeled in red wax set inside an aluminum rim. Degas poured plaster in to simulate water. “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen,” was a controversial addition to an 1881 Impressionist exhibition thanks to its startling use of materials including silk slippers and a wig of human hair.
“That was a moment when realism was something that artists were moving toward,” Talbot said. “But this sculpture took it to the next level.”
“Taking Shape” remains on view through April 9.
1:50 p.m. Nov. 29: An earlier version of this article said “The Tub” dated to 1849. It dates to 1889.
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