It is Edgar Degas’ most famous sculpture, and it’s the only one that he ever exhibited over the course of his lifetime, but how much do we really know about La Petite Dansuese de Quatorze Ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen Years)? Degas completed the original sculpture in 1880, exhibiting at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881. The 28 bronze casts of the sculpture that we hear about today were actually only created after Degas’ death, by his heirs between 1921 and 1938. In fact one failed to sell at a Christie’s auction in New York this past November, partly due to its colossal $35 million estimate.

The sculpture that Degas exhibited in 1881 was not bronze but, rather unusually, made from reddish brown wax, moulded over a skeleton made from paintbrushes. He dressed it in real fabrics and even gave it real hair, presenting it inside a glass case. Unlike Degas oil paintings, the statue was not well received by the French critics with some claiming that it resembled a medical specimen and other objecting to its perceived primitive facial features.

The model on whom the sculpture is based was Marie Genevieve van Goethem who was a student at the Paris Opera Ballet, a location which Degas was known to frequent. The daughter of two Belgians living in Paris, Marie grew up in Paris’ impoverished 9th arrondissment and from the age of 13 along with her sisters she worked as one of the trainees, or ‘Petite Rats’ at the Paris Opera Ballet, occasionally performing on stage as extras in some of the company’s larger productions.

Following the death of her father, Marie’s mother moved the family to an apartment on Rue Notre-Dame de Lorette, very close to where Degas’ studio was located on Rue Saint-Georges, and both Marie and her sisters are known to have modelled for Degas at this time. They would have been earning between six to ten francs per sitting, often being required to hold awkward positions for up to four hours at a time. Due to the number of young girls who were coming and going from his studio, there are records that detectives from the Parisian Police actually questioned Degas, although nothing untoward seemed to be happening, other than Degas’ notoriously grumpy demeanour.

Unfortunately modelling for Degas didn’t seem to be paying the bills, and eventually Marie and her sisters began moonlighting as prostitutes in some of Paris’ more notorious taverns. Marie was eventually arrested for pick pocketing, at the age of 17 she was dismissed from the Paris Opera Ballet for missing too many practises, and after this incident there is no further record of her or the life that she led.

The 3/4 size wax sculpture of Marie aged fourteen that Degas created, and the bronze casts that survive today, simply captures a single moment in a somewhat tragic life. We don’t know if she was aware of the critical backlash against her statue in 1881, and it’s unlikely she could have conceived of the $35 million price tag that would eventually be attached to her image over a century later.