Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Edgar Degas
The Little Dancer is something of an anomaly in the collection. Amid all the abstracted forms, whether from early twentieth-century Africa or Paris and London of the 1950s, here is this masterpiece of realism, complete with gauzy skirt and silk hair ribbon. At the time that Bob and Lisa acquired this piece in 1938, it was the apparent daring of the departure from the traditional bronze material that attracted most attention. With the knowledge that the bronze was derived from a wax original that sported a complete ballet outfit, the piece was, as it were, viewed as a collage avant le lettre, and a harbinger of the radical experiments of so much twentieth-century art. I do not recall discussing her much, if at all, with Bob or Lisa when I was at the Sainsbury Centre in the mid-1980s, but there she stood, pert and realistic, at the very centre of the Living Area, surrounded by diverse forms from around the world and across centuries.
By the time I was writing Volume 3 of the collection catalogue, I was director of an art museum that has a plaster version of the piece. Recent scholarship had seriously reordered how the Little Dancer was seen; placing it firmly in the context of its own time, when it scandalised many for its unflinching exposé of sexual exploitation behind the scenes at the ballet – aspects of the work that I was able to discuss with Bob and Lisa on many visits I made to their home in London.
Facts & figures
Little dancer aged fourteen, 1880-81, Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Bronze, edition unknown, Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. UEA 2.
Cast c. 1922. h. 99.1 cm. Acquired 1938.
Other collection highlights
Project for a cover for Vogue, Sonia Delaunay
The burst of colour in this 1916 idea for a Vogue cover is a thrilling counterblast to the horrors of the first world war, finds Rose Hilton
In these diminutive works of art, the potter has captured something truly evocative of the atmosphere in Chang’an (now Xi’an), that wonderful imperial capital of the Tang Dynasty, writes David Richardson