Lord of the Dance

Ballerinas kept Edgar Degas on his toes. The famed artist may have been an unapologetic misogynist, but women -- the most feminine of dancers, in fact -- served as his most potent muse. More than half of the Impressionist's pastel and oil works draw upon dance, as does his most famous sculpture -- due not to a taste for pubescent girls, but because depicting dancers indulged the artist's primary passions: portraying light and motion.

Degas' dance fever reached a fever pitch in the 1860s, when he took to fashioning wax sculptures as three-dimensional guides for his paintings. More than 150 sculptures and fragments were found in his studio after his death, and 73 of the finest figures -- 38 of them dancers -- were cast in bronze. Beginning this weekend, Valley art enthusiasts have a golden opportunity to see all 73 bronzes, one of only four complete sets in existence, as Phoenix Art Museum unveils "Degas in Bronze." The traveling exhibition includes the artist's most famous sculpture -- and the only figure cast and displayed during his lifetime -- Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. Revolutionary in concept and construction -- polychrome wax, fabric tutu, and real hair tied with a satin ribbon -- the work was critically condemned at Paris' 1881 Impressionist exhibition, its subject likened to an ape, a rat, a "flower of the gutter."

"This body of sculpture was very, very challenging to the standards of 19th-century France . . . ," explains Tom Loughman, Phoenix Art Museum's curator of European art, "a complete break away from a very highly finished style that was then prevalent."

Also including renderings of horses and bathing women, the collection allows the observer to intimately experience one of the 19th century's most celebrated artists. Museum director Jim Ballinger points out that Degas' fingerprints remain visible in many of the sculptures -- "Impressionism" in the most literal sense.