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Degas’ Rare Sculptures Are Stuffed With Wine Corks

X-rays show the artist fleshed out his wax and clay personal projects with bits and pieces found around the studio

(The Fitzwilliam Museum)
smithsonian.com

Edgar Degas did not want to be known as a sculptor. The French artist spent his career producing impressionistic paintings and realistic drawings of dancers. But in his free time he worked out the intricacies of the human figure and musculature of horses by creating sculptures out of beeswax, clay and plaster. During his lifetime, he only displayed one of these figures, "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer," in 1881. The rest he considered ephemeral pieces, and let them degrade in his studio. On his death in 1917, over 150 of these sculptures were discovered, and are now considered masterpieces of the form.

The BBC reports that the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge recently X-rayed the three fragile Degas sculptures they own, finding that the artist bulked out the armatures of his little dancers with bits of detritus he found around his studio. “The use of ordinary shop-bought armatures, wine bottle cork and old floorboards, confirm Degas to have been a highly unorthodox sculptor who used unconventional working practices, in terms of materials and technique, which resulted in the frequent loss of his wax sculpture,” a spokesperson for the museum tells the BBC. Gray areas in the X-rays of the sculpture are believed to be bits of cork.

Tom Whipple at The Times reports that similar examinations of the sculptures held by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., found that Degas used pieces of paint brushes and part of a salt shaker to create the sculptures. “You buy a wire armature, use these as an internal skeleton, pose the model, put clay over it and make a little figure,” Victoria Avery, keeper of applied arts at the Fitzwilliam, tells Whipple. “He snips off bits, bends them, and bulks it out probably to save money on modeling materials.”

The Press Association reports that Degas’ original sculptures are so fragile that they are rarely put on display. Most art lovers know his heirs commissioned Hébrard Foundry to cast 73 of his sculptures from bronze casts after his death in 1917, as it was something the painter resisted during his life (a 74th sculpture was cast later). “He’d be turning in his grave over the bronzes,” Avery tells Whipple. “He was an impressionist, he was about fleeting moments.”

In the last few decades, the story of Degas sculptures has gotten even more interesting. A cache of 74 plaster versions of his sculptures were found in the Vasuani Foundry outside Paris in the 1990s. While art historians at first believed the plasters, which vary in different ways from Degas well-known wax and bronze sculptures, were casts made after his death, more recently, some experts have begun arguing the casts were made by the artist during his life, and may represent earlier versions of some of his sculptures.

Whatever the case, the wax and clay versions, intended for the trash heap by Degas, are now precious and priceless. In 2015, one of the original bronze casts of "The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer" sold for a record $18 million.

The three rare sculptures that were X-rayed, “Dancer Bowing,” “Dancer With A Tambourine” and “Arabesque Over Right Leg, Left Arm In Front,” will go on display next week as part of the Fitzwilliam’s new exhibit, “Degas: ‘A Passion for Perfection,’” marking the 100th anniversary of artist's death.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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