© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Little Dancer' Brings Us To See The Person Behind The Famous Degas Sculpture

"Little Dancer," a sculpture by French artist Edgar Degas, is seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on July 16, 2014.
Nikki Kahn
The Washington Post via Getty Images
"Little Dancer," a sculpture by French artist Edgar Degas, is seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on July 16, 2014.

"She is famous the world over, but how many people know her name?" asks Camille Laurens in her new book Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas's Masterpiece.

The French novelist and essayist, best known for her autofiction, poses more questions than she can answer in this slim book about the girl who modeled, in 1881, for Edgar Degas's sculpture "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen."

Her 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.

The little dancer's name was Marie Genevieve van Goethem. She was born in Paris in 1865, the middle of three daughters of parents who had moved from Belgium to Paris in an unsuccessful attempt to escape poverty. By the time Marie reached double-digits, her father was long gone, "either dead or returned to Belgium," and her mother, a laundress, did what she could to make ends meet by indenturing all three daughters to become trainees for the corps de ballet at the Paris Opera, who were known as "little rats." Laurens's description of the harsh, physically torturous life these girls endured evokes Les Misérables, and makes it clear that this financial transaction was a form of child slavery rather than the enrichment and privilege that characterizes little girls' ballet lessons today.

While it was possible for talented girls like Marie's youngest sister to make it into the corps and later become balletmasters, Marie and her older sister were not so fortunate. Even before they left the Opera, both picked up auxiliary work — jobs modeling for artists, or the patronage of male "sponsors" procured by their mother. In fact, Marie's work for Degas precipitated her dismissal from the ballet, fired for being repeatedly late to class.

Lacking hard facts, much of Laurens's book is conjecture. "Let's imagine the scene," she writes, as she tries to reconstruct what it might have been like for 14-year-old Marie to pose stock still for hours on end, both nude and clothed, for 45-year-old Degas as he endlessly reworked her wax likeness. The reclusive, bad-tempered artist, who had changed his name from the noble De Gasse to the more egalitarian Degas, reportedly saw women as "human animals" and commented memorably, "Art is vice. You don't marry it lawfully, you rape it."

But fortunately for Marie, he was "famously chaste." Unlike some other artists of the time, he did not sleep with his models. "Still," Laurens writes, "the relationship between Degas and his model remains a mystery." Apparently, he did not come to her defense when she was booted from the ballet in 1882.

Little Dancer takes an interesting personal, meta-turn in the last chapter, in which the author considers her dissatisfaction with the paucity of documentation, and her connection to Marie's story. She digs deeper, searching online records to try to find out what became of Marie after her dismissal from the ballet — without much luck. She wonders if her own fatherless, working-class grandmother might have crossed paths with Marie while walking around Paris.

Laurens also recalls the abrupt end of her own dance lessons while growing up in Dijon, after her father noticed welts on her sister's thighs from their teacher's cane. Although Laurens missed dancing, she realizes in hindsight that, unlike Marie, she was fortunate to have had a protector like her father. She notes that, soon enough, instead of walking with a book balanced on her head, she finally "cracked it open. Another life opened to me then, which I am still living."

Dance still moves Laurens to tears, though she does not push too hard for reasons. "I'm not sure why," she writes, and adds, "I am having a hard time ending this book, because I'm having a hard time letting Marie go." Her sympathetic connection becomes so strong that she addresses the Little Dancer directly in Little Dancer's final, moving pages. Along the way, she also quotes a famous Degas dictum: "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." Laurens's artful achievement is to make us see the person behind Degas's famous sculpture.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.