In Brief

X-Rays of Degas Sculptures Illuminate His Unconventional Process

Conservation scientists at the Fitzwilliam Museum shed some light on the everyday objects forming the armatures of three surviving beeswax sculptures.

X-ray of Edgar Degas sculpture, “Arabesque over Right Leg, Left Arm in Front” (all images courtesy Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge)

Rather than toss them out, Edgar Degas put the corks of his wine bottles to good use. Using X-ray imaging, conservation scientists at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge have found that the artist repurposed the stoppers to bulk out three sculptures of dancers that he made from beeswax, shedding light on his innovative and idiosyncratic process. The dazzling pictures of Degas’s figures — which bring to mind Étienne-Jules Marey’s early mocap suit pictures —  actually reveal a junkyard of sorts beneath the sculptures’ shiny surfaces: aside from corks, the innards of these dancers include everyday, lightweight material Degas would have had lying around his studio, including bits of floor. These fragments would have helped stiffen out his figures, which he built around twisted wire frames.

Edgar Degas, “Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front” (ca 1882–95)

“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 told the BBC.

The research was conducted leading up to Degas: A Passion for Perfection, a major exhibition at the Fitzwilliam that marks the 100th anniversary of the artist’s death. Fragile and never intended to be displayed, the three wax sculptures are some of the rarest works on view. Each captures a young female figure in different poses: frozen in the arabesque position; bent backwards slightly with a tambourine; and bowing gracefully.

According to the BBC, they were among 75 sculptures found in Degas’ studio after his death — and all, as studies (with many revealing fingerprints on their surfaces), meant for the artist’s eyes alone. The only wax sculpture Degas ever exhibited publicly was a precursor to the famous bronze versions known as “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.” Previous studies of that soft statuette revealed that it, too, was bulked up with cork, wood, rope, and, in its arms, paintbrushes. Although Degas had resisted having these sculptures reproduced in more permanent materials, his heirs had versions cast in bronze to preserve them after his death. These finished works, of course, leave no apparent sign of the bric-a-brac involved in the process of their making.

Saved long ago from the junk yard, the three wax figures will be on display starting tomorrow, when the exhibition opens.

X-ray of Edgar Degas sculpture, “Dancer with Tambourine”
Edgar Degas, “Dancer with Tambourine” (ca 1882–95)
X-ray of Edgar Degas sculpture, “Dancer Bowing (The Curtain Call)”
Edgar Degas, detail of “Dancer Bowing (The Curtain Call)” (ca 1882–95)
Edgar Degas, detail of “Dancer Bowing (The Curtain Call)” (ca 1882–95)

Degas: A Passion for Perfection runs from October 3, 2017 to January 14, 2018 at the Fitzwilliam Museum (Trumpington Street, Cambridge, UK).

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