Degas’ Disgusting Ballerina

Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (c.1879-81)

When Degas’ much beloved Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was first exhibited in 1881, it was greeted with fear and disgust. One art critic wrote that Degas had selected a model “among the most odiously ugly; he makes it the standard of horror and bestiality.” Another added that “the vicious muzzle of this little, barely pubescent girl, this little flower of the gutter, is unforgettable.” Degas, a keen consumer of physiognomic theories, then all the rage, had given the little ballerina the physical characteristics of low-class criminality including long arms (like a monkey), a receding forehead (small brain) and a protruding jaw (ape-like). He encouraged that view by placing her in a glass case (then only used for anthropological exhibits) and positioned her near one of his pastels: the heads of two criminals, assassins, whom he had seen in a dark courtroom and to whom he had given similar features. Contrary to what we would imagine today, Degas’ sculpture was greeted as though he had “made of it a strongly-flavoured work of exact science in a truly original form” as another art critic remarked.1 It is a reminder that vision is not fixed nor always the same because what you see is what you already think. Indeed these critical comments are probably not what Degas thought either; his placement of the pastel near the glass case may just have been to mislead people.

I mention this because an earlier, well-known physiognomist Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) wrote: “Every painter paints more or less himself. As one is, so he paints.” His view is somewhat different to what we argue here but more about that tomorrow.....

In the meantime, if you have further interest in Degas' Little Dancer, click here.

1. For a comprehensive discussion of the issues, albeit with a feminist twist, see the chapter "Physiognomy and Difference" in Anthea Callen, The Spectacular Body: Science, Method and Meaning in the Work of Degas (Yale University Press) 1995, pp. 1-29

Posted 01 Feb 2012: DegasExhibitions

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