Not all obsessions are bad. Certainly not that of the French novelist Camille Laurens with Edgar Degas and his famous sculpture of a young ballet dancer. It has resulted in a charming little book, translated from the French by Willard Wood and published by Other Press as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, subtitled as “The True Story Behind Degas’s Masterpiece.”
With notes and a select bibliography, it comes to no more than 166 pages, including profuse illustrations, making for a couple of hours of pleasurable reading that are likely to leave you with much longer fruitful speculation about what you have just read. “La petite danseuse de quatorze ans,” as the statue and book are titled in the original, is a little masterpiece of research, guesswork, and authorial meditation about everything that has been said and written about Degas and the famous statue, casts of which inhabit museums the world over, including the original in Washington’s National Gallery.
Laurens’s book brings in innumerable references to the sculpture and its history, along with what relatively little is known directly or indirectly about Marie (Geneviève) van Goethem, as the fourteen-year-old model was called. It is wonderful, the seamless way in which the narrative spreads out in ever wider ripples, covering art history, literary history, and just plain history of the fin de siècle. Laurens has tracked down often far-fetched and yet relevant details, including ample citations from such important writers or epistolarians as Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, Valéry, Julien Gracq, Henri de Régnier, Vincent van Gogh, Patrick Modiano, and a host of less distinguished sources.
Of course, there are also Degas’s own writings, including his sonnets, which he submitted to Mallarmé with the defensive comment that they contained ideas, eliciting the master’s rejoinder that poems were made with words, not with ideas. And we hear from a number of such contemporaries or near-contemporaries as the Degas biographer Daniel Halévy and his painter friend and memoirist Jacques-Émile Blanche. Much is revealed concerning Degas’s haughtiness about his petty aristocratic origins, leading to his anti-Semitism and anti-Dreyfusism. You also end up learning a good deal about sculpture, painting, rival art exhibitions, contemporary museum-going, and what went on at the ballet and its background, where teenaged corps de ballet dancers—the so-called “petits rats de l’Opéra”—were being pimped off in the Opéra lobby by their mothers to wealthy patrons of ballet as well as of teenaged girl flesh.
The story chronicles Degas’s avid ballet-going and sketching of scenes from the rehearsals, performances, and lives of the opera rats, which fascinated him as intensely as horse racing and its human and equine practitioners. It is worth noting that, unlike most of his artistic colleagues who had sex with and sometimes married their female models, Degas never bedded them, which has given rise to wonderment by Laurens and many others. Diverse reasons have been proffered, although never the one that strikes me as most likely: that Degas, though known as witty, was a rather cold fish, and was, despite some early dipping into heterosexuality, really a closeted homosexual.
The book tells the story, as far as it is known, of the van Goethem family, impoverished Belgians who emigrated to Paris. The father, a tailor, absconded promptly, leaving the three daughters in the hands of their tyrannical washerwoman mother. Antoinette, the eldest, was a Degas model, later a prostitute, and, out of desperation, a thief (and briefly imprisoned), before returning to Belgium, a questionable marriage, and early death. The youngest, Louise-Joséphine, after some years of dancing and modeling, became a dance teacher.
About the middle sister, the “Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer,” surprisingly little is known: mostly that, besides being a rat, she could eke out an only somewhat better wage from Degas and other artists. Because she had to do that, she missed many rehearsals or performances, was often exposed to the severe dance director’s cane, and was finally fired. Here is a characteristic passage from Laurens, otherwise known as a novelist:
Her corset and tutu were worn, her hand-me-down cotton slippers were misshapen and had been repaired twenty times already. Her feet were often bloody and her poorly tended sores infected. When she arrived home at the tiny apartment she shared with her family, there was no running water. She couldn’t wash her sweaty body until the concierge saw fit to bring water, unless she went back downstairs herself, got in line at the water pump, and lugged the bucket back to the apartment without spilling. The public baths were expensive, and she could barely afford them once a month.
Marie was slight, wispy, and flat-chested, and because Degas fancied himself a naturalist, he made her unpretty, endowed with features such as a sloping forehead, equated by the pseudoscience of the time with criminality. Regularly statues are fashioned of wax and plaster, from which later on bronze or marble casts are made. Degas however kept his dancer waxen, with that unhealthy coloring, but bedizened with real ribbons, bodice, tutu, and slippers, and so exhibited her at the Salon des Indépendants of 1891 in a protective glass cage.
She struck both the critics and the spectators with revulsion or terror, and was compared to a monkey or an Aztec, at the very least guilty of supposed prostitution. Degas, annoyed, never exhibited her again, and refused her to potential buyers. He was nevertheless fond enough of her to keep her displayed in his studio. It was only after his death that some twenty bronze casts were made, landing in many of the world’s most distinguished museums.
Laurens has amassed and perhaps partly invented an elaborate account of Degas’s arriving at his model’s somewhat odd posture, which she was obliged to hold painfully for hours. He could never even spell her name correctly, and she herself remained barely able to read and write. A final appearance in the story as member of the sisterly trio on the platform for Antoinette’s trip back to Belgium is the last we know of Marie.
The book goes on with ever more speculation; it is quite a tale woven from sundry more or less factual accounts, observations, and lively conjectures plentifully cited in Laurens’s narrative. Gradually, the story shifts to the author’s grandmother, who may have crossed Marie in the street, as well as to Laurens’s reconstructions of the Paris that Marie must have seen and been, however infinitesimally, a part of. The author has tracked down numerous living van Goethems, none of whom has even heard of Marie. We, on the contrary, after reading the short but absorbing Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, may well feel a kinship with the little rat, who surely never dreamt of the immortality that has been conferred upon her.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 7, on page 67
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