The Tampa Museum of Art now has a bona fide star for "Edgar Degas: Form, Movement and the Antique."
"Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen," Degas' most famous work and one of the iconic sculptures of the 19th century, is part of a collection of 49 bronzes, paintings and drawings by the French artist (1834-1917).
The sculpture caused a sensation - mostly negative - when it was exhibited in Paris in 1881. He didn't idealize the young ballerina who was in the corps of the Paris Opera. Instead, he emphasized her adolescent awkwardness, a suggestion of exhaustion and, in her stance, a discipline that was beyond her years.
Further controversy was caused by his materials. It was modeled in wax, which artists traditionally used in the early stages of sculpting to create a mold for a more permanent medium such as bronze.
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His decision to clothe the body in real fabric and use human hair caused an outrage similar to contemporary artist Chris Ofili's use of elephant dung on a portrait of the Virgin Mary in the 1990s. Most critics considered it vulgar and offensive; the few admirers were astonished at the modernity and originality in the unidealized depiction of the girl in a "backstage," natural moment.
By the mid 20th century, the sculpture's importance had been established as a bridge between the detached classical tradition and the new wave of immediate expression that began in Degas' time.
Degas (pronounced duh-GAH) is usually associated with the impressionist movement. He rejected that association, though he often participated in group shows with impressionists such as Claude Monet and shared some of their philosophical beliefs, most importantly in portrayals of real life. Degas was also one of the finest unknown sculptors of his time. His paintings and drawings were widely exhibited and praised but he showed a sculpture publicly just once, "The Little Dancer."
Only close friends who visited his studio were aware of his extensive three-dimensional work, which he considered private experiments to further his obsession with portraying the human body naturally. Pierre-Auguste Renoir , another great impressionist, considered his sculpting ability without equal.
He created all his sculptures in pliable materials such as wax and clay that could be reworked constantly.
Two years after his death, his heirs discovered about 150 of them in his studio, many deteriorating, and had 74 of them cast in bronze in 22 sets.
This "Little Dancer" is from one of those editions and one of only nine in public collections. It comes from the permanent collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, a gift from the late Paul Mellon, who also bought the original wax sculpture, which is on display at the National Gallery in Washington. The National Gallery, founded by Mellon's family, is also lending works to the Tampa Museum.
Hard to imagine an exhibition of Degas' sculptures without the "Little Dancer."
And now we don't have to.