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Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Young Spartans Exercising

Key facts
Full title Young Spartans Exercising
Artist Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas
Artist dates 1834 - 1917
Date made about 1860
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 109.5 × 155 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1924
Inventory number NG3860
Location Room 44
Collection Main Collection
Young Spartans Exercising
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas

The painting illustrates a passage from the Life of Lycurgus by the Roman historian Plutarch, which describes how Spartan girls were ordered to engage in exercise – including running, wrestling and throwing the discus and javelin – and to challenge boys. However, this may be a scene of courtship rather than competition, as aspects of the girls' hairstyles and poses correspond with accounts of such rituals in Plutarch’s writing. In the middle distance a group of women, mothers of the children, surround the elderly Lycurgus, who drew up the rules of Sparta. Beyond them is the city of Sparta, overlooked on the left by Mount Taygetus, from which unwanted Spartan infants were thrown.

Degas abandoned his first attempt at the painting (now in the Art Institute, Chicago) and made substantial changes to this second version as he tried to modernise it, replacing the classical features of the adolescents with more contemporary faces. The picture had great significance for him, and he kept it in his studio all his life.

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