Edgar Degas

Dancer Looking at the Sole of her Right Foot

?1910–11, posthumous cast

Original title
Danseuse regardant la plante de son pied droit
Medium
Bronze
Dimensions
Object: 476 x 267 x 216 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1949
Reference
N05919

Summary

Dancer Looking at the Sole of her Right Foot is a maquette-sized bronze sculpture by French artist Edgar Degas. The work depicts a female nude standing on her left foot with her left arm outstretched, while clutching her upturned right foot in her right hand. The body is twisted as the figure looks backward to examine the sole of her foot. The surface of the sculpture is textured showing visible signs of the artist’s modelling process, including thumb indentations, finger marks, brushstrokes and scratches. In several places, including on the buttocks and the top of the left foot, small flat pieces of modelling material have been adhered but not blended and as a result small distinct lumps are evident on the surface of the form. The figure’s left hand is truncated – with no delineation of fingers or a palm – and similarly her right hand lacks definition and appears to meld directly into her right foot. There is a black-brown patina on the bronze that remains true to its original colour in the crevices, but has worn to a rich reddish brown elsewhere on the work’s surface.

Degas modelled Dancer Looking at the Sole of her Right Foot in around 1910–11 at 37 Rue Victor-Massé in Paris, the building in which he lived and worked for twenty-two years. This work forms part of a series of statuettes made by Degas between 1890 and 1911 and was cast after his death. Preferring an improvisational method of working when sculpting, Degas mixed plasteline and wax, built his own makeshift armatures and, as curator Charles W. Millard has observed, stuffed the forms with ‘the strangest of materials’ such as sponges, matches, cork discs and cloth plugs (Millard, The Sculpture of Edgar Degas, New Jersey 1976, p.37).

The art historian John Rewald has noted that Degas’s penchant for unusual and difficult poses led to the collapse of many of his sculptures (see Rewald 1990, pp.24–7). Degas’s ambition with these works was to capture women in their daily activities and natural movements, but as he was nearly blind at this period he was obliged, according to curator Ronald Alley, ‘to sit very close to the model and to check the position of the muscles or curves of the haunch by feeling them with his hand’ (see Alley 1981, p.155). One of Degas’s models reported posing for him in 1910 in the posture depicted in Dancer Looking at the Sole of her Right Foot, claiming that the sittings continued for several months, sometimes twice a day, four sittings a week. Although the work advanced well, Degas was never satisfied. According to the model he kept trying to improve it by raising the knee or turning the torso, and in the end it fell to pieces (see Alley 1981, p.155).

Degas’s unconventional method of modelling has meant that the majority of his statuettes did not survive. Those that did were found in his studio after his death in 1917 and transferred by his close friend the sculptor Barholomé to the cellar of the founder A.A. Hébrard, who began producing posthumous bronze casts of Degas’s sculptures at the end of 1919. Using a highly accurate method of reproduction known as lost wax casting, Hébrard was (according to Rewald) able to remain extremely close to Degas’s originals. Rewald has argued that the complicated lost wax method has the greatest advantage over all other methods since ‘it achieves the highest possible fidelity to the original whose very surface, the surface kneaded by the artist is so faithfully reproduced that even the fingerprints reappear on the bronze casts’ (Rewald in Czestochowski and Pingeot 2002, p.280). Several other examples of Degas’s works that were cast posthumously by Hébrard exist in the Tate collection, including Grande Arabesque c.1885–90 (Tate N05917), Dancer Putting on her Stocking c.1900 (Tate N05918) and Dancer at Rest, her Hands on her Hips, Right Leg Forward c.1890 (Tate N05920).

Further reading
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.155–6, reproduced p.155.
John Rewald, Degas’s Complete Sculpture: Catalogue Raisonné, San Francisco 1990, pp.24–7.
John Rewald, ‘Edgar Degas: Original Wax Sculptures’, in Joseph S. Czestochowski and Anne Pingeot (eds.), Degas Sculptures: Catalogue Raisonné of the Bronzes, Memphis 2002, pp.280–1, reproduced p.253.

Judith Wilkinson
March 2016

Supported by Christie’s.

Display caption

Degas did not give this work its title, and it seems likely that this figure is not even a dancer. The idea for the sculpture may have originated in a series of studies of bathers climbing out of a bath and drying their feet. As in all his sculptures, Degas has focused not on the figure's sexual identity but on her physical action. 'These women of mine', he once said, 'are honest, simple folk, unconcerned by any other interests than those involved in their physical condition'. While such comments are, to some extent, typical of nineteenth-century attitudes, recent scholars have debated the assumptions about class and gender that Degas' works reveal.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

Edgar Degas 1834-1917

N05919 Danseuse regardant la Plante de son Pied droit (Dancer looking at the Sole of her Right Foot) c.1910-12

Stamped 'Degas', '59/C' and founder's stamp 'CIRE | PERDUE | A.A. HÉBRARD' on base
Bronze, 18 5/8 x 9 3/4 x 7 1/2 (47.3 x 24.8 x 19)
Purchased from Roland, Browse and Delbanco (Benson and Cleve Funds) 1949
Prov: Mlle Jeanne Fèvre (the artist's niece); with Galerie Kaganovich, Paris; with Roland, Browse and Delbanco, London
Lit: Alice Michel, 'Degas et son Modèle' in Mercure de France, February 1919, pp.457-78 and 16 February 1919, pp.623-39; Paul-André Lemoisne, 'Les Statuettes de Degas' in Art et Décoration, XXXV, 1919, p.115; Germain Bazin, 'Degas Sculpteur' in L'Amour de l'Art, July 1931, p.301; John Rewald, Degas: Works in Sculpture (New York 1944), No.LXI, pp.10-11, 27, repr. p.127 (assigned to the period 1882-95); John Rewald, Degas: Sculpture (London 1957), No.LXI, pp.23, 155, repr. pls.58, 61; Charles W. Millard, The Sculpture of Edgar Degas (Princeton 1976), pp.18-19, 30, 35, 69, 71, 107, 114

This pose evidently fascinated Degas towards the end of his life, as he used it for at least four sculptures (Rewald Nos.XLV, XLIX, LX and LXI), with minor variations in the position of the legs and the twist of the body, and for two further sculptures (Nos.LXII and LXV) in which the figure faces forwards instead of turning to look at the raised foot. The earliest appears to be No.XLV which has a fairly smooth finish and was sent to be cast in plaster about 1900. The present work, with its rough vigorous surface and the lack of definition of the extremities, is clearly a late piece.

One of his models has described how she posed in 1910 for a sculpture in this attitude; sittings continued for several months, sometimes twice a day. The work was advancing well, but the artist, never satisfied, kept trying to improve it by raising the knee or turning the torso, and in the end it fell to pieces. (He made difficulties for himself by using inadequate armatures and by inserting pieces of cork which kept coming to the surface). Straightaway he began another figure in the same pose, which he worked at for some months, with four sittings a week, then abandoned early in January 1911.

As he was nearly blind at this period, he was obliged to sit very close to the model and to check the position of the muscles or the curves of a haunch by feeling them with his hand.

It is not clear whether this is the sculpture modelled in 1910-11, as the latter is said to have been modelled in plastilene whereas the original of this work is in brownish-black wax. He seems to have given up working altogether in 1912, when he was forced to move out of his three-floor apartment-studio in the Rue Victor Massé.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.155-6, reproduced p.155