Book Review: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

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Many thanks to Other Press for sending a copy of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Camille Laurens.  I got more out of this little book than I had anticipated, and I’m pleased to say that I now feel much smarter about Degas and his work.  While I had originally thought that he simply revolved his art around the beauty of the ballet, it turns out there was more to his creativity than met the eye.

For example, I did not know that Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was based on a real child.  I didn’t know that she was one of many “little rats” that danced tirelessly at the Paris Opera in the 1880s.  I also did not know that she danced not by choice, but to help keep her family fed.  More troublesome, I did not know that these girls were subjected to grueling schedules, bleeding feet, and abuse from the Paris Opera itself (and its patrons). Certainly makes the Paris Ballet seem less glamorous, no?

Her name was Marie Genevieve Van Goethem, and she was born on June 7, 1865.  Her parents were Belgian, and they had emigrated to Paris for a better life. Marie’s mother was a laundress and her father was a tailor.  Marie had two older sisters; the elder who became a prostitute and a petty thief, and the youngest who became a “little rat” the same time as Marie. Life was difficult, to say the least.  When Marie posed for Degas for this statue, it was simply another form of income for the family.  It was not the flattering artistic moment that many might assume.  The art was borne from need, not beauty.

Interestingly, the statue that Degas created in her likeness captured more than her ballet tutu. It actually captured a troubled time in Paris’ history.

“Degas intended this sculpture to give a sense of surprise, a salutary shock, opening the viewer’s mind by presenting not an elegant work that would flatter his esthetic sense but a societal tragedy, to which he was contributing.” (p. 55)

Camille Laurens does an excellent job providing a background of not only the dancer behind the statue, but of the time in which it was created.  You will get a sense of how dark and poverty-stricken this period was, and how desperate people were to feed their families. If you were part of the poorest class, your options for livelihood were limited. Posing for an artist was a job, not a compliment.

What I thoroughly appreciated was how Laurens dissected the appearance of the statue.  Marie was not depicted as a graceful swan, but as a worker, with her chin jutted out and an air of defiance surrounding her. Theories abound as to why Degas modeled her this way, and I won’t divulge some of the fascinating thoughts on the subject, because I can’t do them justice.  I will say that I was taken aback by some of the more prominent theories, and I lament the fact that “scientific” explanations such as physiognomy still exist today (dubious at best). 

Pick this book up if you want to know more about the history of Degas, the Paris Opera, and the subjects of Degas’ artistic eye.  It reads like a thesis, but that’s not to say that it isn’t interesting, because it absolutely is.  If I ever have the opportunity to see one of the 28 Little Dancer Aged Fourteen sculptures in person (she’s on display in museums and galleries all over the world), I’ll be sure to show her the respect that she deserves.  Her history requires it.