Controversies United Kingdom

Artists said no to Degas's Little Dancer

Why Henry Moore objected to the Tate's purchase

Tate's "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen" by Degas

london. One of the stars of the Royal Academy of Arts’s forthcoming Degas show (“Degas at the Ballet”, 17 September-11 December) will be the bronze Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Lent by the Tate, it has been in the museum's collection since 1952. Buying the Little Dancer was opposed, however, by three of the London museum's trustees. Leading British artists Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and John Piper were concerned that the museum was getting value for its money.

The Tate bought the Little Dancer (1881, cast 1922) for £9,000 from London’s Marlborough Fine Art. The National Art Collections Fund (now Art Fund) contributed £6,000. A rival dealer, New York-based Curt Valentin, told Moore that the £9,000 price demanded by Marlborough was too high. Valentin was then Moore’s own dealer.

The Treasury took up the complaint and John Rothenstein, the director of the Tate, responded on 7 October 1952. Papers in the Tate archive show that the three artist-trustees had “expressed disquiet with the price paid”, suggesting it should be around £4,500. Rothenstein, in his memoirs, later revealed that privately others were accusing him of having “pocketed a large commission”, a charge he vehemently and successfully denied.

Moore specialists are surprised at the news that he had opposed the Tate’s purchase, since in the 1970s he went on to purchase two important Degas drawings for his personal collection. Moore biographer Roger Berthoud suggests that the sculptor may have admired Degas “more as a painter and draughtsman”, and hence his opposition to the £6,000 paid for the Little Dancer.

Nearly 30 casts were made of the Little Dancer. These include an example sold by Sir John Madejski at Sotheby’s two years ago for £13.3m. Madejski had previously lent his Degas to the Royal Academy for display in its Fine Rooms, but as the sculpture is no longer available, the RA has had to turn to the Tate for their Little Dancer.

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31 Aug 11
17:52 CET


Perhaps Moore didn't feel the Little Dancer was of great significance as an art work. In this he would be correct. It is a charming work, made more significant by the stature of its author, but it really doesn't escape the stasis which was nineteenth century sculpture, which was only truly to be relieved by the arrival of the Futurist (in particular Umberto Boccioni) and to a lesser extent Cubism (see Herbert Read's Concise History of Modern Sculpture). Plus there are at least 30 copies! The $13.3 million price paid for one of these is really a reflection of the mass appeal of a popular artwork by a popular artist which has been reproduced in countless art books.

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