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The Seedy Underbelly Of The Belle Epoque, 'Painted'

Jan 12, 2013
Originally published on January 14, 2013 12:54 pm

Just who is The Little Dancer, Aged 14? Who is the actual girl, cast 2/3 of her life size by Edgar Degas?

That little dancer was Marie van Goethem, one of three sisters left to fend for themselves after their father dies and their mother begins spending her washerwoman's income on absinthe.

The eldest of the trio, Antoinette, is 17 and a failed ballet dancer. Left to care for Marie and her baby sister, Charlotte, she arranges for them to avoid a life in the wash house by enrolling in the Paris Opera Ballet School. That's where Marie attracts the eye of the painter Degas. He brings her to his studio, where she is naked and vulnerable, in all ways.

Cathy Marie Buchanan has written a novel about the sisters behind the masterpiece. It's called The Painted Girls, and she tells NPR's Scott Simon that she was inspired by a documentary about the famous sculpture. "I learned about the seedier side of the Paris Opera, and also about the privation of the young girl, Marie van Goethem, who modeled for the sculpture. It certainly flew in the face of my notions about ballet as a sort of high-minded pursuit, and I became quite fascinated by the idea of telling this young girl's story."

Many of the young girls at the ballet came from poor backgrounds, Buchanan says, and were sent there to make a better life — a life that often involved finding a "protector" or an "admirer," since the girls were paid less than subsistence wages. "And it was very in vogue with the wealthy male patrons of the dance to have a ballet girl as a mistress," she says.

There was plenty of opportunity to imagine Marie's life, Buchanan adds, because the historical record is scanty. "They know that she was a poor girl, that she grew up on the lower slopes of Montmartre," she says. "They know that she was sent to the Paris Opera Ballet School at 13 years old, that she was later promoted to the corps de ballet. They also know that she was dismissed at one point for missing classes and going to class late. And then after that, she pretty much disappears from the historical record."

When Marie met Degas, Buchanan says, the artist was on the brink of fame, but he wasn't quite there yet. "In 1881, when he exhibited Little Dancer, Aged 14, there were a couple of critics that talked about it being the first truly modern sculpture, and so on, but most of the criticism was very negative. They said her face was imprinted with the detestable promise of every vice."

The belle epoque, in fact, was not so belle, says Buchanan, "unless you're one of the wealthy chosen few. I was recently asked what time period I would like to have lived in, and I have to say as a commoner and a woman, I have to pick now. I don't think there was any period in history that was as kind as today is to the average person, the average woman in particular."

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Just who is the "Little Dancer, Aged 14" - the actual girl, cast in two-thirds of her life size, in Edgar Degas' sculpture? That little dancer was Marie Van Goethem, one of three sisters left to fend for themselves after their father dies and their mother devotes much of what she earns as a washerwoman toward absinthe to dull her days. But it's the era of Belle Epoque in Paris, a time remembered for gaslights and glitter. Cathy Marie Buchanan has written a novel that tells the story of the sisters behind the masterpiece, "The Painted Girls." And Cathy Marie Buchanan, author of the previous bestseller, "The Day the Fall Stood Still," joins us from the CBC studios in Toronto. Thanks so much for being with us.

CATHY MARIE BUCHANAN: My pleasure.

SIMON: Did you see one of the wax reproductions that are in museums around the world and say, there's a novel?

BUCHANAN: What happened was I was watching a documentary that focused on "Little Dancer, Aged 14." And I learned about sort of the seedier side of the Paris opera and also about the pervasion of the young girl, Marie van Goethem, who modeled for the sculpture. It certainly flew in the face of my notions about ballet as a sort of a high-minded pursuit. And I became quite fascinated with the idea of telling this young girl's story.

SIMON: And help us understand the Paris Opera Ballet at the time. For example, there were "protectors and admirers" I put that in quotes, euphemisms that would come to the ballet.

BUCHANAN: Many of the young girls at the ballet were from poor families - daughters of laundresses and sewing maids and so on. They were sent there for the better life, which often meant becoming the mistress of a wealthy male patron of the dance. The girls were paid lower than subsistence level wages. And it was very in vogue with the wealthy male patrons of the dance to have a ballet girl as the mistress.

SIMON: To what degree did you think it was important to be factual in what is after all a novel?

BUCHANAN: What I did with this book is I stuck to the known facts of Marie van Goethem's life. I certainly had lots of opportunity to imagine a life for her because the facts that are known are scanch(sp). They know that she was a poor girl, that she grew up on the lower slopes of Montmartre, that her father was a tailor, that he had died, that her mother was a laundress. They know she was sent to the Paris Opera Ballet School at 13 years old, that she was later promoted to the corps de ballet. They also know that she was dismissed at one point for missing classes and going to class late. And then after that, she pretty much disappears from the historical record. So, I did have lots of room for imagination.

SIMON: Help us understand Edgar Degas at this particular time. What was his standing and reputation in the art world?

BUCHANAN: Degas was sort of on the brink of becoming a famous artist but it hadn't yet happened for him. I mean, he wasn't part of the salon, which is where the accepted art was being shown. In 1881, when he exhibited "Little Dancer, Aged 14," there were a couple of critics that talked about being the first truly modern sculpture and so on. But most of the criticism was very negative and talked about the statue being ugly and wondered why Degas was putting something ugly out there in the world. They said her face with imprinted with the detestable promise of every vice.

SIMON: I wonder if this is a projection or based on something you've read. Some of the most famous sketches that Degas - of Marie in particular - her eyes are down, which gives her that pensive, contemplative air. You suggest, without giving too much away in this book, that she was reading the newspaper when they sketched her.

BUCHANAN: There is in fact one pastel widely believed to be Marie van Goethem where she is reading the newspaper. But whether Marie van Goethem could in fact read is not known.

SIMON: I want you to read a section, if we could, where you describe Degas drawing Marie van Goethem.

BUCHANAN: (Reading) He began a set of drawings, simple drawings, lines of charcoal with a touch of white pastel with my fingers resting on my chin with my arms spread wide and holding my skirt with a hand upon the fallen strap of my bodice, as if pulling it up. Sometimes he wanted my hair off my neck, up in a chignon. Sometimes he liked it hanging down my back in a braid or even loose, collected over a shoulder. As often as not, I was naked. The part that never changed was always he wanted my feet in fourth position and I began to wonder if that was the great idea he was thinking up while he started that picture of me with the fan; that I would stand in fourth position and he would draw me a hundred times. Afterward, I would look and see spindly arms upon the page, jutting hips, a chest hardly different from a boy's. I would peer deeper trying to see what Degas did, and maybe I looked too hard, because in the scribbled black lines, I saw a girl vulgar in her face. I saw not a chance of grace upon the stage.

SIMON: It prompts the question, was the belle epoch really such a beautiful age.

BUCHANAN: You know, I don't think it was a beautiful age unless you're one of the wealthy chosen few. I was recently asked what time period I would like to have lived in, and I have to say as a commoner and a woman, I have to pick now. I don't think there was any period in history that was as kind as today is to the average person, the average woman in particular.

SIMON: Cathy Marie Buchanan. Her new novel, "The Painted Girls," speaking from Toronto. Thanks so much for being with us.

BUCHANAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.