`THE Little Dancer of 14 Years,'' by Edgar Degas, is one of the first truly modern sculptures, a reproduction of what exists in reality rather than what was or what might have been in classical or romantic fancy. The model was a young ballet dancer almost ready to graduate to the exalted position of a star performer.
The painter Degas sculpted this figure in wax and exhibited it in 1881. The only sculpture he ever presented to the public, it received the same derision and ridicule heaped by Parisian art lovers on the work of the artists they disparagingly nicknamed ``The Impressionists,'' a label now glorified.
Like many group names, ``Impressionism'' did not fit all the members, Degas least of all. He abhorred ``painting in the open air'' and worked in seclusion, cloistered in his studio, inaccessible to all. Moreover, he felt strongly that the eye should be controlled by the brain.
After he passed on in 1917, some of his friends who knew he had done extensive modeling opened up his last studio to find a clutter of about 150 dusty, crumbling wax sculptures, some of them in pieces.
They were turned over to a foundry that successfully cast from them a series of remarkable bronze sculptures -- like the one shown here from the Mus'ee d'Orsay in Paris.
Degas is most celebrated as an in-terpreter of ballet dancers; no other artist has treated the theme so comprehendingly.
This is not surprising since modern viewers attend an opera or a ballet relatively rarely in comparison to people of Paris in the late 19th century. Then and there almost every man of any degree of sophistication or urbanity held a yearly season ticket to the thrice-weekly performances. Such subscribers were given free run of the theater, including the wings of the stage, its corridors, dressing rooms, and foyers -- and Degas was very Parisian.
Perhaps because we have all known youngsters taking dance lessons, their terrible earnestness and intense yearning to be recognized as a star, we identify with this girl, no longer a child but not yet a woman.
It is evident Degas made many alterations in the course of this early work. Marks show he tilted the head farther back, pulled the arms and closed hands away from the hips, and increased the turnout of the right foot.
He painted the imitation flesh of his wax model and provided her with real silk stockings, ballet slippers, a skirt of white gauze, a linen bodice, hair (real horsehair) braided into a pigtail and tied with a green satin ribbon.
Degas found it necessary that his models be ballet dancers, for only they could give him a rapid succession of balanced movements sufficiently ritualized that he could call for repeats and get the same gestures over and over.
Probably he started modeling to understand better for his painting the role of form, movement, third dimension, space, and lighting.
Today, Edgar Degas is universally recognized as both a great painter and a great sculptor with an extraordinary inclination to experiment.