Microbes Show Exquisite Taste in Art

In 1921, journalist Francois Thiebault-Sisson recorded that the artist had once said, "I modeled animals and people in wax for my own satisfaction, not to take a rest from painting or drawing, but to give more expression, more spirit and more life to my painting and drawings."

But Suzanne Glover Lindsay, an art historian at the University of Pennsylvania who is collaborating with National Gallery conservators on a book about the artist's statues, says other records suggest Degas did, in fact, consider the statues finished works fit for display. She adds that the work, itself, suggests it was meant for more than practice.

"The surfaces are very carefully worked and tooled," she said. "The problem with Degas' quotes is for every statement he seems to give someone else a statement to the opposite effect. You have to be careful about interpreting them."

There is even confusion over which of the works were displayed during his lifetime. Previously, art historians believed only the statue of the 14-year-old dancer was shown during Degas' lifetime. But recovered flyers from the late 1800s suggest that some of the other wax sculptures were shown in salons in Paris at the time.

One thing is certain, however: Degas avoided working with permanent media such as bronze. In fact, he may not have approved of the bronze castings taken of several of his wax sculptures after his death. Instead, he preferred art forms that he could always tinker with later -- such as wax, paint and pastels.

Wax sculpture may have been a more pliable medium for the artist, but today its preservation presents a much trickier challenge than the bronze castings. To try and keep microbes from further munching away at the works, Berrie says she and her colleagues are considering adding purified air circulation systems to the sculptures' display cases.

"We realize the fatty acids in the works can be a food source for bacteria," she said. "But a proper air exchange system can inhibit happy conditions for the microbes."

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