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The Fitzwilliam Museum owns the only sculptures in Britain actually made by Degas during his lifetime, three statuettes of nude dancers in different positions – ‘Dancer Bowing’, ‘Dancer with a Tambourine’ and ‘Arabesque over Right Leg, Left Arm in Front’ – all modelled in wax. The latter two poses are unique among his surviving sculptures. They were all made privately for himself and by himself, with the notable exception of his iconic ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’, exhibited in 1881.

Degas is known to have been a highly unorthodox sculptor who used unconventional working practices in terms of materials and technique, frequently resulting in the deterioration and loss of his work. Of around 150 original sculptures discovered in his studio after his death in 1917, many crumbling into fragments, only around 70 were saved. Therefore, the trio of dancers in the Fitzwilliam, impressed with Degas's fingerprints, are extremely rare survivals by one of the most important and experimental artists of the nineteenth century, who died a century ago on 27 September.

For the first time, these autograph lifetime waxes have been technically investigated and analysed by conservators and conservation scientists at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. Their findings reveal Degas modelled all three using pigmented beeswax over commercially-produced shop-bought iron armatures. He supported them with external metal ‘back-stands’ that he fixed to offcuts of wood, perhaps from old floorboards. Having bent the wire into the desired pose, he would often bulk out larger figures by adding a range of materials, including lightweight everyday domestic objects recycled from items he had lying around his studio. The new X-radiographs of the Fitzwilliam's ‘Dancer with a Tambourine’, suggest the fills in the head, chest and abdomen include wine-bottle corks.

After Degas’s death, many of his sculptures were repaired and his original supports altered. The Fitzwilliam's wax ‘Arabesque’ is one of the least altered of his surviving waxes and thought to best represent the sculpture as Degas intended. It is unusual in showing a young girl (rather than a mature woman) and experts think it may well be the very earliest surviving dancer sculpture by Degas. It has been related in type to the iconic ‘Little Dancer’. Recent technical investigation has revealed that this figure is modelled conventionally over a shop-bought armature wired to a shop-bought back-stand, a method that Degas is known to have moved on from in most of his other figurative sculpture, perhaps feeling constricted by their uniform sizing. 

These lifetime waxes are part of a larger group retrieved from Degas's studio in 1917 –  the vast majority of which are now in America, especially the National Gallery of Art (NGA), Washington,  – and used by the Hebrard foundry in Paris to cast all the posthumous limited-edition bronzes that are so well-known and loved in museums worldwide. The bronzes were all made after Degas's death, to maximise profit from his estate - something which Degas had actively resisted doing during his lifetime.  The lifetime sculptures in Washington were also recently X-radiographed by NGA colleagues, and these too show the presence of other everyday domestic objects – including paintbrushes, pencils and metal lids.

Degas produced his sculptures in highly experimental poses with an apparent disregard for their longevity, being motivated primarily by his obsessive pursuit of perfection. This meant that on occasion he would demolish an entire sculpture, declaring to his dealer 'I wouldn't take an entire bucket of gold for the pleasure I had in destroying it and starting all over again' - illustrating the rarity of the Fitzwilliam's surviving examples.

Victoria Avery, Keeper of Applied Arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum said, ‘Degas defied tradition as well as contemporary practice to resist having his sculpture cast in bronze. It is therefore deeply ironic that Degas’s fragile and deliberately ephemeral, one-of-a-kind sculptures are now best known from their durable bronze serial casts, displayed in public and private collections across the globe.’

Due to their light-sensitivity, the Fitzwilliam’s fragile waxes are very rarely on public display. However, all three wax sculptures and one of only two surviving documented lifetime plaster dancers will be displayed in the exhibition Degas: A Passion for Perfection opening at the Fitzwilliam Museum until Jan 14. This exhibition is designed to celebrate the genius of Degas one hundred years after his death and to highlight the extraordinarily diverse holdings of works by Degas at the Fitzwilliam.