Degas, Dancers and Phrenology

Little Dancer of Fourteen Years

Sookie St. James is like most chefs, passionate about what she does,  so much that she hates conforming to the wishes of her vegetarian customers. In Haunted Leg, she begins to rant;

“You don’t dictate to an artist, you don’t tell him what to do. I mean, no one ever walked up to Degas and said, “Hey, pal, easy with the dancers, enough already. Draw a nice fruit bowl once in a while, will ya?”

As Sookie mentions, Degas is best known for his numerous portraits of ballerinas. If you were to look at the walls of an average ballet studio, you would probably find at least one Degas.

Although typically known as a painter, Edgar Degas also explored sculpting. His only sculpture shown in exhibition is The Little Dancer of Fourteen which is an excellent example of the theory of phrenology.

Phrenology chart mapping out the different aspects of personality

Phrenology (sometimes known as Cerebral physiology) is the “science” of head reading, where it was thought that personality could be determined by the physical features of the subject; specifically, the raised bumps on one’s forehead. Phrenology was first developed by Dr. Franz Joseph Gall in the 18th-century. Gall’s research was the result of numerous brain dissections and traits he noticed from classmates.

Although phrenology was thought to tell whether a subject had better language skills or musical abilities, it also was believed to find predispositions for criminal behaviour. This where Degas’ statue gets more interesting. The subject, Marie de Goethem, was known as an “opera rat” who became a ballerina to end the impoverished life she was born into.

Marie’s facial features were exaggerated to reflect the phrenology teachings of the time. Her nose was more angular, and her stance denotes criminal behaviour which caused outrage upon its exhibition.

Modern critics note the similarities between phrenology, racism and classism. Pointing out that the characteristics of criminal predispositions are commonly found among people of colour.



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