Seventy Degas Sculptures are Now on Display at the Norton Simon Museum

Published : Wednesday, November 29, 2017 | 1:57 PM

Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917), Modeled 1878–81; cast after 1918, 37-5/8 x 13-3/16 x 9-15/16 in. (95.6 x 33.5 x 25.2 cm). Credit: Norton Simon Art Foundation

Sculptures by French impressionist Edgar Degas are now on display at Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum, in honor of the centenary of the artist’s death in 1917.

“Taking Shape: Degas as Sculptor,” is on view until April 19, 2018, and features more than 70 bronzes cast from the artist’s original wax and clay statuettes.

“The sculptures depict three major themes: horses, dancers, and bathers,” curator Emily Talbot at the Norton Simon Museum tells the Los Angeles Times.

Degas (1834–1917) exhibited just one sculpture during his lifetime: the controversial “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen.” The figure startled visitors to the 1881 Impressionist exhibition with its unidealized physiognomy and its 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 — 100 years ago — that the extent of his sculptural production was revealed. Of the nearly 150 models retrieved from Degas’s studio, 74 of the best-preserved examples were cast in bronze and editioned, making public and permanent these transient exercises in form.

“Taking Shape: Degas as Sculptor” 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.

The direct and openly tactile techniques that Degas honed as a sculptor also permeate his work in two-dimensions, as the artist ground rich overlays of pigment into paper, and put aside his paintbrush to fashion frothy tutus from his thumbprints.

“Taking Shape” considers the affinities between sculpting, painting, and drawing in Degas’s oeuvre by presenting the modèle bronzes alongside related pictures from the Norton Simon’s renowned collection. Seen together, this expansive body of Degas’s works — one of the largest in the world — celebrates the artist’s boundless enthusiasm for creation, and his insatiable impulse to build form.

For more information about the exhibit, visit www.nortonsimon.org.

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