Laurens, Camille. “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas’s Masterpiece”, translated by Willard Wood, Other Press, 2018.
The Girl Behind the Statue
Even though she is famous throughout the world, how many know her name? We know only that she was fourteen, and the work that she did was grueling work at an age when children today are in school. In the 1880s, she danced at the Paris Opera but what is often a dream for young girls now wasn’t a dream for her. She was fired after several years of hard work because the director had had enough of her repeated absences. She had been working another job or two, because the few pennies the Opera paid weren’t enough to keep her and her family fed. She was a model who posed for painters or sculptors and among them was Edgar Degas.
Camille Laurens uses historical material and her own love of ballet and personal experience to bring us a portrait of Marie van Goethem and the world of the artists’ models themselves and what makes this so special is that it is often overlooked in the history of art. We get not only fascinating insights into the young woman, but also learn about the master behind the famous sculpture. We journey into the slums, the famous Opera House, and Degas’s art studio in nineteenth-century Paris and we are taken into historical records to uncover what happened to Marie van Goethem. As I said, we learn about the model and the artist and we also see that there was a time when women who were born into a life of suffering were considered unimportant and then forgotten.
Lauren gives us an intense look at the abuses of child labor in Paris in the 1880s. It was out of this that Degas found his model. Along with that, the story recreates the sights, sounds, and smells of the nineteenth-century art world.
“The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” debuted at the Salon des Indépendants in 1881 and was met with mixed reviews. Visitors didn’t know what to make of this sculpture. Perhaps most shocking was that Degas was portraying one of the “little rats” or poor girls who were made to spend most of their time in exhausting, endless dance lessons at the Opera House and were preyed upon by wealthy men. Like the others, Marie van Goethem took side jobs as an artist’s model to earn a bit more money, including several jobs for Degas. This was challenging world of the poor.
These “little rats” of the Opera led deeply paradoxical lives – spending half their time in beautiful sets, the other half living in hovels. They were admired and revered onstage, but dismissed in real life aside from being treated as sexual objects while they were still little girls afraid of their power over men, yet powerless to improve their own lives. Critics still are not sure what Degas intended when he showcased one of these ‘little rats’ to the world and did not know if he meant to expose the hypocrisy and racism of the time, or if he was just presenting an image of a lower-class girl who deserved her status? Many questioned what he meant by changing Marie’s features, and why did the wax sculpture was filled with random objects like drinking cups and paintbrushes. We get both answers and questions in this lovely little book.