At the 6th Impressionist Exhibition in 1881. Edgar Degas astonished everyone by presenting a sculpture. Previously he had just painted ballerinas, but now he choose to captivate the movement of a dancer in wax, an unusual medium at the time. Opinions varied; some critics decried its ‘appalling ugliness‘ while others saw in it a ‘blossoming‘. Still, this statuette is perhaps Degas’ most controversial work.
It was the first and the only time during Degas’ lifetime that the sculpture was exhibited. Extraordinary realism of the statuette surprised the critics, but the little dancer was considered ugly.
Degas made the statuette from wax and painted it so lifelike with real hair and clothes, and he even tied her hair with a ribbon, given to him by the model. Today you can see the bronze copies of a statuette, but although beautiful, they’re not as spooky, revolutionary or lifelike as the original, hand painted, wax ballerina must have seemed. Model for the dancer was a young Belgian girl, a typical ‘Petits Rat‘, a fourteen year old student of the Paris Opera Ballet named Marie van Goethem. Her family came to Paris in the early 1860s from Belgium. Marie, born in 1865, had an older sister Antoinette and a younger one named Charlotte. Both Marie and Charlotte were accepted into the dance school of the Paris Opéra in 1878, where Antoinette was employed as an extra. In 1880 Marie passed the examination admitting her to the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera Ballet and made her debut on the stage in ‘La Korrigane’.
Van Goethem family moved very frequently; from a stone apartment building on ‘Rue Notre-Dame de Lorette’ called ‘Place Bréda’, near Degas’s studio on ‘Rue Saint-Georges’, the family settled on ‘Rue de Douai’, on the lower slopes of Montmartre, a few blocks from ‘Rue Fontaine’ where Degas’ studio was located at the time. The Breda district in which that had previously lived was very poor and one of the most squalid areas for prostitution. As most ‘Petits Rats‘, Marie came from a poor and disreputable family. Various rumours circulated about her behavior. Some considered her sloppy and vulgar. Still, for Degas who frequently attended ballet performances at the Paris Opera and observed classes in dance school, Marie was a useful model. She would pop around in Degas’ studio and sit for him for four hours. She had beautiful long hair which she was very proud of, and when she danced, she would stick up her chin so that her hair would fall down her back. This particular pose can be seen in other Degas’ paintings she posed for. However, the position Degas required from Marie is very difficult and unnatural; he’d pull her hands at the back and tell her to stick her chin even higher. Even her feat are in a weird position. The arms are taut and the legs are twisted, a ballerina herself is presented differently than accepted, this is not an angelic pose which would be usual and approved.
Some Degas’ contemporaries praised the originality and modern approach of the statuette. Joris-Karl Huysmans called it ‘the first truly modern attempt at sculpture I know’. However, most of the critics were very cruel not only towards the statuette, but to the little dancer as well. Certain critics compared the dancer to a monkey and ot Aztecs. One critic, Paul Mantz, called her the ‘flower of precocious depravity‘, with a face ‘marked by the hateful promise of every vice‘ and ‘bearing the signs of a profoundly heinous character.‘ Degas had exhibited the sculpture inside a glass case, and the audience reported that is looked like a medical specimen.
Marie’s career as a ballerina ended soon after. She had skipped too many classes and at the end of 1881. taverns have replaced the dance stage. Her later whereabouts are unknown, as is any information about her death. An article in L’Evénement, which preceded the dismissal by two months, reported ‘Miss van Goeuthen—fifteen years old, has an older sister who is an extra at the Opera and a younger sister in the Opera dance school—consequently she frequents the Martyrs Tavern and the Rat Mort.‘ Once a gracious model to Degas, Marie stumbled in life. Still, she modeled not only for this famous statuette, but for many other Degas’ artworks such as ‘Dancer with Fan‘, ‘Dancing Lesson‘, ‘Dancer Resting‘ and many preparatory sketches.