Leeds Museums and Galleries have secured a rare Edgar Degas (1834-1917) bronze – ‘Portrait of a Woman: Head Resting on One Hand’ – for their nationally significant sculpture collection. The acquisition was made possible by the government’s Acceptance In Lieu scheme, administered by Arts Council England. The sculpture, once owned by one of Britain’s most significant painters Lucian Freud, was one of three works by Degas bequeathed to the nation when the artist died in 2011.
A number of UK galleries submitted applications to be the custodians of the three bronze sculptures and Leeds Art Gallery was successful, along with National Museums Liverpool (Walker Art Gallery) and the National Museum Wales. Leeds Art Gallery is known chiefly for its collection of twentieth century British art, reputed to be the best example thereof outside London, with the sculpture collection managed in partnership with the Henry Moore Institute. The holdings also include nineteenth and early twentieth century French works, including a very significant and singular cast of Rodin’s ‘The Age of Bronze’ from 1906. This is the first work by Degas to enter the collection.
It was in 1891 that Degas’ heirs authorised a series of posthumous casts, or editions, of bronzes to be made from seventy-two small figures. Degas worked on his sculptures privately and seems not to have been interested in positioning himself within a sculptural tradition. In his lifetime, he was best known for one sculpture ‘The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer’, exhibited in Paris in 1881 but not again until 1920. Modelled in wax and wearing a real bodice, stockings, shoes, tulle skirt, and horsehair wig with a satin ribbon, the figure scandalised Degas’ contemporaries. After his death, 150 ‘sculptures’ were found in his studio, mainly made in wax, clay, and plastiline. Paul-Albert Bartholomé (1848-1928), a sculptor and Degas’ long-time friend, was authorised to prepare the figures, including the Leeds example, for casting. The contract, dated May 13, 1918, stipulated that each edition would be limited to twenty casts (plus one for Adrien Hébrard, head of the foundry, and another for Degas’ heirs).
Intimate in conception, ‘Portrait of a Woman’ joins paintings by Bonnard, ‘Grandmother and Child’ (1894) and Vuillard, ‘Mlle Nathanson in the Artist’s studio'(c.1912) as well as a small but important Courbet (‘Les Demoiselles de la Village’ (1851), a smaller version of the painting in the Met, New York). These sit alongside other significant pictures from the Barbizon school, including works by Corot, Rousseau, Richet, and Diaz, and as well as paintings by Sisley and Signac, and several paintings made by French artists working in Britain, including Derain and Pissarro.
Next spring, this Degas bronze will be included in a display of the Gallery’s holdings of French art, which will be brought together in tribute to the ‘Grand Depart’ of the Tour de France, which comes to Yorkshire in summer 2014.
Notes to editors:
The Henry Moore Institute manages and curates the Sculpture Collections of Leeds Museums and Galleries, a partnership that has built one of the strongest public collections of British sculpture in the UK.
The Henry Moore Institute is part of The Henry Moore Foundation, which was set up by Moore in 1977 to encourage appreciation of the visual arts, especially sculpture.
The Foundation’s responsibilities are preserving Moore’s legacy at his Hertfordshire home and in exhibitions of his work worldwide, funding exhibitions and research at the Institute and awarding grants to arts organizations in the United Kingdom and abroad. Moore’s former home, sculpture grounds and studios at Perry Green, Hertfordshire, are open to visitors seasonally.