Taking Shape: Degas as Sculptor

Degas exhibited just one sculpture during his lifetime, the controversial Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, which startled visitors to the 1881 Impressionist exhibition with its unidealized physiognomy and radical use of real materials such as silk slippers and a wig made from human hair. In the privacy of his studio, however, Degas modeled in wax and clay throughout his career, producing hundreds of small-scale, informal studies of horses, dancers, and bathers that were seen only by close friends and visitors. It was not until the artist’s death—one hundred years ago this year—that the extent of this sculptural production was revealed. Of the nearly 150 models retrieved from Degas’s studio, the artist’s heirs selected 74 of the best-preserved examples to cast in bronze and sell as an edition, making public and permanent these transient exercises in form.

This exhibition explores the improvisational nature of Degas’s artistic practice through the Norton Simon’s collection of modèles, the first and only set of bronzes cast from the original wax and plaster statuettes. This unique set of sculptures served as the matrix for the serial bronzes that followed, and in some cases they preserve evidence of Degas’s handwork that has been altered or repaired in the wax originals. Capturing the condition of the figurines when they were discovered in the artist’s studio, the modèles vividly convey the instinctive way in which Degas pressed and smeared pliable wax and plaster over handmade wire armatures, and bulked the core with cork and other easily accessible materials. Rather than serving solely as sources for paintings or pastels, these sculptures were independent objects, what the artist called essais—“trials” or “experiments.” For Degas, the act of sculpting was an end in itself.

The direct and openly tactile techniques that Degas honed as a sculptor also permeate his work in two-dimensions, as the artist ground rich overlays of pigment into paper, and put aside his paintbrush to fashion frothy tutus from his thumbprints. “Taking Shape” considers the affinities between sculpting, painting, and drawing in Degas’s oeuvre by presenting the modèle bronzes alongside related pictures from the Norton Simon’s renowned collection. Seen together, this expansive body of Degas’s works—one of the largest in the world—celebrates the artist’s boundless enthusiasm for creation, and his insatiable impulse to build form.

Taking Shape: Degas as Sculptor