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 clay 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.