The complete sculptures of Edgar Degas

A complete set of 73 figurative plasters made from Edgar Degas’s wax originals has been restored to the public eye and cast in bronze.

degas 311 (photo credit: The Degas Sculpture Project Ltd.  ©2009 All Rights)
degas 311
(photo credit: The Degas Sculpture Project Ltd. ©2009 All Rights)
The discovery of an unknown plaster cast of Edgar Degas’s most important sculpture, La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (The Little Dancer, Age 14) in 2001 led to the 2004 discovery of a previously unknown cache of 73 other sculptures in plaster all created from the wax originals sculpted by the Impressionist master.
A full set of unsullied bronzes, cast from these plaster originals is currently on view at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in an exhibition entitled the Complete Sculptures of Edgar Degas. Brought here by curators Walter F. Maibaum and Carol Conn of the Degas Sculpture Project Ltd., with the support of the M.T. Abraham Center for the Visual Arts, this remarkable discovery is not as black and white as it appears. Its history began more than 100 years ago.
At the time of his death on September 27, 1917, Degas had exhibited only one sculpture, the original wax figure of La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans. The year was 1881 and the venue, the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris. The contention is that because of mixed reviews, some quite hostile, Degas, although he continued to sculpt in beeswax, refused to cast additional pieces. It is even more surprising that during his lifetime not a single sculpture he created was ever cast in bronze. The extensive editions of his bronzes found in museums and private collections worldwide were cast posthumously.
Degas’s sculptures, like his paintings, drawings and pastels of ballet dancers, horses and bathers, were not conceived with the same sleek characteristics of nymphets, animals and aristocrats idealized in the heroic neoclassical and sentimental romantic 19th-century narrative marbles and bronzes. Quite the contrary, they are crusty and layered forms that explore life’s rough and spirited mannerisms of Parisian genre, transforming the times into an assembly of rational figurative images.
Rachel Campbell-Johnston, in her article “A fresh insight into the first painter of modern life” (The Times, November 28, 2009), had it right by saying “His delicate nymphs have feet of clay. They have aching muscles and pains in their joints.” In describing La Petite Danseuse, she continued, “Here was a grubby little adolescent from the Paris Opera, with wrinkled stockings and blunted features, her stubbornly raised jaw speaking only too clearly of the strain of her pose. And to make it even more lifelike, Degas gave her real hair tied back with a ribbon, a bodice of silk and a gauzy tutu.”
Degas was a painter, and in his animated sculptures he searched for the truthfulness of anatomical structure at its most simple and its most complex.
AFTER DEGAS’S funeral his dealer and an executor of his estate, Paul Durand-Ruel, together with the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, discovered more than 150 of the impressionist’s wax and terra-cotta sculptures. More than half of them were in a state that could not be salvaged and only 74 were rescued intact, plus a handful of the terra-cotta figurines and plasters. In consultation with Adrien-Aurelin Hébrard, owner of a respected Parisian foundry, Degas’s heirs granted Hébrard the rights to cast a limited edition of the 74 waxes in bronze. Work began in 1919 and continued until 1936 when, because of the global financial meltdown, sales depleted and the Hébrard Foundry closed its doors.
In Degas Sculptures: Catalogue Raisonné of the Bronzes, by Joseph S. Czestochowski and Anne Pingeot (International Arts, January 2003), 1,380 bronzes are listed as cast by Hébrard, a number far exceeding the original intent.
The saga continued with the announcement in 1949 by Nelly Hébrard, heir to the Hébrard foundry, that she was in the possession of 69 original Degas waxes as well as plasters of The Torso and La Petite Danseuse which were thought to have been destroyed many years before. The wax originals and plasters purchased by the New York gallery M. Knoedler & Co. were subsequently sold to the philanthropist Paul Mellon, who in turn donated them to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
At the same time Hébrard made it known that two pristine plaster sculptures of La Petite Danseuse had been made from the original wax in 1921. Eventually the first plaster found its way to Washington’s National Gallery donated by the Mellon family via the Degas scholar John Rewald, and the second to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, a gift of the Knoedler Gallery.
The chronicle of Degas’s sculptures was once again put on the map in 1976 when the Lefevre Gallery in London displayed an entire yet undocumented collection of the bronzes stamped with the word modèle (French for model) and currently housed in the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, California. A second set of Hébrard castings is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, donated by the American collector Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer (1855-1929) whose initial purchase was made in 1921.
It is assumed that, except for the La Petite Danseuses, all Degas bronzes worldwide, in public and private collections, were cast from the modèle bronzes. These sets are called surmoulages or “after casts” because they are cast from original bronze masters. The downside of a surmoulage is that it is a wee bit smaller than its original bronze mold and, qualitatively, surface details lose some of their sharpness and weathered textures.
THE MOST spectacular discovery of additional Degas sculptures (in plaster) came to light in 2001. Through an intermediary, Walter F. Maibaum, an authority on 19th and 20th century European art, was introduced to Leonardo Benatov, owner of the Valsuani Foundry in Chevreuse, France, and possessor of a heretofore unknown plaster cast of Degas’s masterpiece La Petite Danseuse. After thorough research, comparative studies and consultation with other Degas scholars, Maibaum was convinced the plaster was an original Degas. But that event was only the beginning of one of the most fantastic episodes in recent times.
During a meeting between Maibaum, Conn and Benatov in 2004, the Valsuani director opened a locked stockroom in which 74 additional Degas plasters were stored, all unknown and never listed or cataloged, but consistent with the 73 originals Hébrard received from the Degas heirs in 1918. “It was a shocking site” said Maibaum. “To me it was the equivalent of opening King Tut’s tomb in Egypt, or uncovering the terra-cotta warriors in China. The moment I gazed upon these remarkable plasters, I instantly knew that everything that had been written about Degas’s sculptures in the past had to be reconsidered.”
According to Dr. Gregory Hedberg, director of European art for Hirschl and Adler Galleries in New York, the Valsuani plaster of the Little Dancer was undoubtedly cast by Degas from his original wax sculpture sometime between 1887 and 1903 after he made adjustments to the forms. The conclusion Hedberg came to was that the entire group of plasters from the Valsuani Foundry was made during Degas’ lifetime between 1887 and 1912 by Degas’ close friend Albert Bartholomé, whom he entrusted with the task.
In 1955, 27 years after Bartholomé’s death, the contents of the apartments of his widow, who had been institutionalized in an asylum, were dispersed and the Degas plasters were brought by the master Hébrard caster Albino Palazzolo to Valsuani, where they remained hidden until 2001. Inherent in their condition and provenance, it is apparent that no bronzes were ever cast from these newly discovered plasters.
As a result of this amazing discovery Walter Maibaum and his wife-partner, Carol Conn, established the Degas Sculpture Project Ltd. This enterprise has received permission from the heirs of Edgar Degas, Fréderique Marie Gabrielle Matagrin and Brigitte Marie Kately Matagrin, in late 2007 to begin casting editions of 29 from each of the 73 plasters. In their letter of Succession Edgar Degas they indicate “...that these bronzes are just as genuine and authentic in every respect as those bronzes which were cast at an earlier time which bear the Hébrard Foundry stamp. Thus, these bronzes, cast at the Valsuani Foundry, shall be considered forever as part of the true legacy of the artist, Edgar Hilaire-Germain Degas.”
The initial public exposure of the 73 Valsuani-Maibaum bronzes, ownedby the M.T. Abraham Center for the Visual Arts, was at the HerakleidonMuseum, a private institution in Athens, where it has been soundlyreceived and well attended. The Degas Sculpture Project is authorizedto arrange for exhibitions and market the bronzes globally and is, asof now, in contact with several major museums, foundations and publicinstitutions for their acquisition. The sculptures are being offered asfull sets only and will not be offered to private individuals unlessthey are benefactors and plan to donate the bronzes to a museum.
The problem of authenticity, however, remains a stumbling block.Although several recognized scholars have given their endorsement onthe genuineness of the plasters, there are those who are reservingjudgment. Scholarship and provenance, especially when investigatingdiscoveries of this nature, is always a thorny enterprise.