Marie was a young teenager when she entered the Paris ballet school and began supplementing her income by modeling for Degas. The artist used her image in several of his works, including one of his most famous sculptures. I can't help but wonder what Marie would have thought if she realized she would become so well recognized around the world.
Please welcome author Cathy Buchanan, who was kind enough to stop by today to tell us a little bit more about the famous Degas bronze. I'll never look at that sculpture the same way again.
1. Marie Van Goethem modeled for the sculpture: Fourteen-year-old Marie van Goethem posed both naked and clothed for Edgar Degas. Between 1878 and 1881, he drew, painted, and sculpted her in numerous artworks, most famously in Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. She was from a poverty-stricken family and was trained at the Paris Opéra dance school to enter the famous Paris Opéra Ballet.
2. Marie's meager circumstances were not unusual at the dance school: A position with the Ballet was the dream of many a poor Parisian girl. The ballet offered a chance to escape the gutter, to find fame and fortune if she had talent and ambition and if she was able to attract the attentions of a wealthy admirer.
4. With Little Dancer Degas may have been hinting at the corruption of Marie: "Scientific" findings of the day supported notions of innate criminality and particular facial features—low forehead, broad cheekbones, forward-thrusting jaw—that indicated a tendency toward crime. It appears Degas bought into the idea and sought to incorporate it into his artwork. The telltale features are apparent in the criminal portrait he exhibited alongside Little Dancer in 1881, and he, in fact, titled the portrait Criminal Physiognomies. With the same features marking Little Dancer's face, art historians hypothesize Degas was suggesting the corruption of young Marie.
5. Little Dancer shocked the city of Paris: When Degas unveiled Little Dancer in 1881, it was to reveal something very curious—a highly realistic wax sculpture of a ballet girl, wearing a real skirt, bodice and pair of slippers and a wig of human hair. She was called a "flower of precocious depravity." Her face, they said, was "imprinted with the detestable promise of every vice." The public, it would seem, had linked Little Dancer with a life of corruption and young girls for sale.
Thanks so much, Cathy. I was fascinated not only with Degas and his work but also with the details of the ballet school and life in the less-romantic areas of Paris. In addition, The Painted Girls brought back many fond memories of own years at various dance studios. (Click the image of the bronze to enlarge it; as far as I can tell it's in the public domain.)
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Published by Penguin USA / Riverhead, January 8, 2013
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