07 January 2013

Imprint Extra: Cathy M. Buchanan on Degas's Little Dancer

In my last Imprint Friday post, I featured Cathy M. Buchanan's The Painted Girls. I couldn't stop reading this fact-based novel about one of Edgar Degas's ballerina models and her efforts to help her family rise out of poverty.

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.

Five Things You Never Knew about Degas's Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (unless you've read The Painted Girls)

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.

3. Ballet girls like Marie were often preyed upon by male season's ticket holders: Along with their own private boxes at the Opéra, male season's ticket holders had purchased entrance to the Foyer de Dance, a space built to encourage encounters with the young ballet girls. It was a sort of gentleman's club, a place where highlife met lowlife, where mistresses were sought by industrialists and noblemen with clout enough to advance a girl's career.

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.)

Riverhead Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, visit the Riverhead website. While there, explore their terrific book list, check out authors in the news, and view some fun videos. Stay in the know by following them on Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter.

Buy The Painted Girls at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
Published by Penguin USA / Riverhead, January 8, 2013
ISBN-13: 9781250013972

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).


Molly 1/7/13, 6:33 AM  

I obviously MUST add this book to my TBR pile as it deals directly with the subject of my first "novel" idea. I am absolutely fascinated with this time period and the on-stage as well as back-stage drama of the Paris ballet.

Daryl E 1/7/13, 7:54 AM  

sounds like a fascinating read, thanks!

bermudaonion 1/7/13, 10:29 AM  

Wow, I never knew those girls were treated so poorly. I need to get my hands on this book!

Anita 1/7/13, 11:06 AM  

This interview and little known facts has me so excited to read,this book!!!

Zibilee 1/7/13, 11:10 AM  

I found facts 4 and 5 to be really remarkable and also a little frightening. The fact that Degas was trying to illustrate that the young girl was corrupted and a lowlife kind of person really baffles me and is also interesting. If he thought she was such a lowlife, why did he devote so much time to her in his life and in his art? I need to read this book!

Serena 1/7/13, 11:14 AM  

I really loved learning about the background for this book. I'm still reading this one, but it is soooo good!

Sandy Nawrot 1/7/13, 11:56 AM  

That is crazy. Who knew? Obviously I need to read this book, having just finished The Art Forger which was about a Degas painting

Vasilly 1/7/13, 11:22 PM  

I had NO idea! Now I need to read this book.

Cathy Marie Buchanan 1/8/13, 8:49 AM  

Thank you for hosting my post. Much appreciated.

I love seeing the interest of those who've commented. I learned much of what I've written here when I came upon an art TV documentary on Little Dancer. Like you, I was shocked/fascinated/dismayed but also delighted that I'd come upon something I wanted to fictionalise!

Julie P. 1/8/13, 2:38 PM  

I love this post! So interesting. Now I just have to find the time to read the book sooner rather than later.

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