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Taking Shape: Degas as a Sculptor

Unbeknowst to most people, famous French painter Edgar Degas was also a talented sculptor. Although he only exhibited one sculpture during his lifetime, called Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, Degas actually created hundreds of small sculptors of horses, dancers, and bathers that were only seen by close friends and visitors during his lifetime.

The exhibit will allow you to discover this exclusive collection of small sculptures found in Degas’ studio. Degas’ original sculptures were modeled in clay, wax, and plaster around handmade wire armatures, but for the exhibit, the best 74 out of 150 of these sculptural models were cast in bronze. The pieces will be presented alongside related pictures from the Norton Simon’s collection, to highlight the similarities and common themes behind Degas’ paintings, sculptures and drawings.

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 plaster statuettes. This unique set of sculptures served as the matrix for the serial bronzes that followed, and in some cases, they preserve objects or evidence of Degas’s handwork that has been altered in the wax originals. Capturing the condition of the figurines when they were discovered in the artist’s studio, the modèles vividly convey the instinctive way in which Degas pressed and smeared pliable wax and plaster over handmade wire armatures, and bulked the core with cork and other easily accessible materials. Rather than serving solely as sources for paintings or pastels, these sculptures were independent objects, what the artist called essais—“trials” or “experiments.” For Degas, the act of sculpting was an end in itself.