Degas made annotated drawings of classical ballet positions in order to familiarise himself with the discipline. Similarly he modelled single dancers in wax and clay. The ‘grande arabesque' is a pose in which the dancer is supported on one leg with the other extended behind. Degas made differing versions of the position including three of the ‘arabesque penchée' (leaning). These show successive phases of the same movement, becoming increasingly lower each time.
The figures modelled by Degas were not intended for exhibition and no casts were made from them during his lifetime. After Degas's death, seventy-two of the small figures found in his studio were suitable to cast. Thirty-seven of these models were dancers.
Degas frequently observed the dancers of the Paris Opéra, and was fascinated by their grace and discipline. In this sculpture, Degas showes a dancer practising the ‘arabesque penchée’, a position that requires tremendous control. The dancer must stay steady on one foot while raising the other leg as high and as straight as possible. Degas made the original wax model of this figure between 1882 and 1895. Following Degas’s death, Adrien-Aurélien Hébrard made bronze casts of the figure, and designated each one a letter of the alphabet between A and T. This cast is inscribed ‘G’, and the number sixteen is incised above the letter. This number refers to the subject matter; all the casts Hébrard made of Degas’s models of dancers were numbered 1 to 37.
Degas's celebrated paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture focus on aspects of Parisian modern life, including the racecourse and the ballet. His studies at the École des Beaux-Arts encouraged his interest in the human figure which remained central to his art. He travelled to Italy, where he had relatives, and where he continued to study the art of the past. The family portraits he painted there, however, also reflect his interest in capturing momentary appearances and unusual viewpoints. This he shared with the Impressionists, whom he met through Edouard Manet, on his return to Paris. Degas contributed to seven of the eight Impressionist group exhibitions.