little dancer

LITTLE DANCER AGED FOURTEEN

The True Story Behind Degas's Masterpiece


This absorbing, heartfelt work uncovers the story of the real dancer behind Degas’s now-iconic sculpture, and the struggles of late nineteenth-century Parisian life. 

She is famous throughout the world, but how many know her name? You can admire her figure in Washington, Paris, London, New York, Dresden, or Copenhagen, but where is her grave? We know only her age, fourteen, and the work that she did—because it was already grueling work, at an age when children today are sent to school. In the 1880s, she danced as a “little rat” at the Paris Opera, and what is often a dream for young girls now wasn’t a dream for her.

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This absorbing, heartfelt work uncovers the story of the real dancer behind Degas’s now-iconic sculpture, and the struggles of late nineteenth-century Parisian life. 

She is famous throughout the world, but how many know her name? You can admire her figure in Washington, Paris, London, New York, Dresden, or Copenhagen, but where is her grave? We know only her age, fourteen, and the work that she did—because it was already grueling work, at an age when children today are sent to school. In the 1880s, she danced as a “little rat” at the Paris Opera, and what is often a dream for young girls now wasn’t a dream for her. She was fired after several years of intense labor; the director had had enough of her repeated absences. She had been working another job, even two, because the few pennies the Opera paid weren’t enough to keep her and her family fed. She was a model, posing for painters or sculptors—among them Edgar Degas.

Drawing on a wealth of historical material as well as her own love of ballet and personal experiences of loss, Camille Laurens presents a compelling, compassionate portrait of Marie van Goethem and the world she inhabited that shows the importance of those who have traditionally been overlooked in the study of art.

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  • Other Press
  • Hardcover
  • November 2018
  • 176 Pages
  • 978-1-59051-795-6-1-1

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$26.95

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About Camille Laurens

Camille-Laurens_3-Catherine-Hélie-©-Editions-Gallimard-220x329Camille Laurens is an award-winning French novelist and essayist. She received the Prix Femina, one of France’s most prestigious literary prizes, in 2000 for Dans ces bras-là, which was published in the United States as In His Arms in 2004. She lives in Paris.

Praise

“A fascinating hybrid…of art history and art appreciation, a personal narrative that reads like a novel…quixotic, but also magical.” The New Yorker

“[Laurens’s] curiosity is contagious, and after reading this elegant pas de deux between the author and her elusive subject, you will surely look at Degas’s celebrated tutu-clad ballerina with fresh eyes…moving…Laurens’s artful achievement is to make us see the person behind Degas’s famous sculpture.” —NPR

“[A] short, erudite investigation into the story behind Degas’s masterpiece…[Laurens] provides a glimpse into the art world of 19th-century Paris.”Wall Street Journal

“A disturbing and enigmatic story…[Laurens’s] book is a meditation on an artist and his forgotten model, forever linked to him through one creation.” Columbus Dispatch

“Well-researched…intriguing…Laurens’s fascination with her subject brings this universally recognized piece of art to life.” Library Journal

“The essence of late nineteenth-century art: Famous man paints nameless woman, her body and image becoming a mantle upon which his notoriety hangs. Who were these women? Typically, no one cares. So it’s refreshing to see an author like Camille Laurens who does.” Huffington Post

“[Laurens] spins a compelling and tragic tale of poverty, power, and the arts that raises questions about the artist’s responsibility to his subject.” Booklist (starred review)

“An evocative tribute to a model, a man, and a moment. Sensitive, human, and profound, this vivid recreation of the sights, sounds, and smells of the nineteenth-century art world is underpinned by solid research, and written in a style which is assured and decisive.” —Catherine Hewitt, author of Renoir’s Dancer: The Secret Life of Suzanne Valadon

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen illuminates a slice of art history with ravishing acuity. Camille Laurens examines Marie van Goethem, the young model and dancer of Degas fame, in a tribute that melds research with quotations, intelligent inquiry, and the underside of the Paris Opera in the nineteenth century. In rhythmic translation, the face behind the sculpture puzzles and beguiles…More than considering the sculpture, the book is a fascinating tour through the past.” Foreword Reviews

“Laurens vividly sketches out a history of the abuses of child labor in Paris in the 1880s…insightful.” —Kirkus Reviews

“[Laurens] is one hell of a writer. More than the facts, it’s an era that she reconstructs, the harshness of which brings a lump to your throat.” Elle (France)

“This fascinating book is…a mirror in which we see our conception of art and of beauty.”Le Magazine Littéraire

“Camille Laurens [evokes], through the story of this model plucked from the gutter, a period in which art unsettled the hypocrisy of a society.”Le Figaro

Discussion Questions

1. Discuss this quote from Degas: “Dance ‘turns music into drawing’” (page 30).

2. Should we accept that a young creature like Marie should be sacrificed to the vision of the artist as Camille Laurens explains on page 52? Do you think the models should have a say in the final result, like some celebrities and models have today with their Photo-shopped pictures?

3. Is Degas, by including so much of what he holds to be true regarding the “criminal aspect” of the little dancers, truly an Impressionist, or a Naturalist?

4. On page 32, Laurens compares the Cardinal Family to the Kardashians: “the adventures of the Cardinal family — an early avatar of the Kardashians — recounting the romantic adventures of Pauline and Virginie, two lovely ballerinas chaperoned by their mother, a cynical procuress, who was eager to sell her fourteen-year-old daughters to aging lechers; one of the girls eventually left the Opera to become a high- class cocotte.” Throughout the book, the author often compares the little dancers of yesterday to today’s stars. What do you think of these comparisons?

5. Were these dancers’ reputations created solely by the realities of their milieu, or also by their representations in the arts? What did Degas try to represent by giving the dancer this physiognomy? Is Degas to blame for the reception upon the opening of the Little Dancer Aged Fourteen?

6. Describe Degas’ relationships to women as depicted in this book. Do you think he ever solved the “what is a woman” question that haunted him throughout his life?

7. Was Marie’s body objectified by Degas?

8. Misty Copeland, by recreating the pose of the Little Dancer, gives the statue a new meaning. How do you think Degas would have reacted to her posing in front of the statue (page 109)? Do you think art is meant to be reinterpreted over time?

9. Describe Degas’ relations with his peers. Was he really part of the Impressionism movement? What made him stand out from the rest of the Impressionists?

10. Camille Laurens writes about global fascination with the Little Dancer. From Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls, to Carolyn Meyer’s Marie, Dancing, why do you think Marie Van Goethem still fascinates authors and readers from around the world?

11. Camille Laurens gives us a glimpse of the life children like Marie led. What does this tells us about the world we live in today, and the current treatments of children around the globe?

12. What do you think happened to Marie after being fired from the Opera?

13. Discuss the working conditions of women (and children) back then. Do you think Degas could have done something to help Marie out, like he did for other ballet dancers?

Excerpt

Normally, wax is a stage in the process of making the final work, but the artist was choosing here to exhibit it as the end product.

And it would be dressed in real clothes, like a doll. Wearing actual ballet slippers. What an oddity! All the same, this wasn’t the official Salon but the exhibition mounted by the splinter group of the Indépendants, the so-called Impressionists, who had never been very academically minded, so it wasn’t really all that surprising. Other than a portrait carved in wood and a small bronze by Paul Gauguin, La Petite Parisienne, Degas’s Little Dancer was the only sculpture in the show. Finally, the public was getting a chance to see it! In the midst of canvases by Pissarro, Cassatt, Gauguin, the figure stood in a glass case, which further piqued curiosity. They pressed forward eagerly, approaching their faces, their monocles, to the transparent divider; they frowned, they backed away, what the devil, hesitated, and either fled or stood transfixed. Almost all who saw it, sensitive and cultured as they were, reacted with horror to the Little Dancer. This isn’t art! some people said. What a monster! said others. An abortion! An ape! She would look better in a zoological museum, opined a countess. She has the depraved look of a criminal, said another. “How very ugly she is!” said a young dandy. “She’ll do better as a rat at the Opera than as a pussy at the bordello!” One journalist wondered, “Does there truly exist an artist’s model this horrid, this repulsive?” A woman essayist for the British review Artist described her as looking “half idiotic,” “with her Aztec head and expression.” “Can Art descend any lower?” she asked. Such depravity! Such ugliness! The work and the model were conjoined in a single tide of disapproval, a wave of hostility and hatred whose virulence surprises us today. “This barely pubescent little girl, a flower of the gutter,” had made her entry into the history of artistic revolutions.