As a teenager I spent four, sometimes five, nights a week in the basement of an old bank, a large low-ceilinged room that had once—a yellowed sign told us—served as a bomb shelter. The ballet mistress would call out, “A little more sweat, if you please,” and at the barre, we would plié more deeply, arch our backs more fully. Sometimes we would have a moment’s rest, and I would roll stiffness from my shoulders, gazing at one of the Edgar Degas prints tacked to the walls. I felt kinship with his ballet girls, sometimes glorious on the stage but as often just simply scratching their backs or limbering at the barre. I saw their heaving ribs, their exhaustion, their thighs trained to roll outward from the hips. I saw their love of dance, too—no different from my own. No wonder, then, that decades later a documentary on Degas’ most famous sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, should introduce me to the protagonist of my second novel, The Painted Girls.
The ballet offered a chance for a daughter to escape the gutter if she had talent and ambition—or if she were able to attract the attentions of a wealthy admirer.
Marie van Goethem, I would learn, had modeled for the work and lived on the lower slopes of Montmartre a few blocks from Degas’ studio. Her father, a tailor, was dead, and her mother was a laundress. She trained at the Paris Opéra dance school and was later promoted to the corps de ballet. It was the dream of many a Parisian laundress or sewing maid. The ballet offered a chance for a daughter to escape the gutter if she had talent and ambition—or if she were able to attract the attentions of a wealthy admirer.
Along with their own private boxes at the Paris Opéra, men who held season tickets had entry to the Foyer de la Danse, a space built to encourage encounters with the young ballet girls. It was a sort of gentleman's club, a place where highlife met lowlife, where mistresses were sought by industrialists and noblemen with clout enough to advance a girl’s career.
When Degas unveiled Little Dancer in 1881, at once the public linked her with a life of corruption and young girls for sale. She was called a “flower of the gutter.” Her face, they said, was “imprinted with the detestable promise of every vice.”
This seedier side of the Paris Opéra flew in the face of my teenage imaginings about the ballet girls tacked to the walls. The lives of those girls, and, more specifically, the life of Marie van Goethem, differed from my own in startling ways. Hers was a story I wanted to tell.
The documentary proceeded, touching on a second story: that of pair of teenage boys Degas had drawn in the criminal court, on trial for a sensational murder. The resultant portrait was exhibited alongside Little Dancer, and art historians contend that more than a shared exhibition links the artworks. They suggest that in each, Degas sought to imply the depravity of his subjects.
Such an intention was easy enough to swallow. “Scientific” findings of the day supported notions of innate criminality and particular facial features—low forehead, forward-thrusting jaw—that marked a person as having a tendency toward crime. Those features are incorporated into the portrait of the teenage boys, and even more telling, Degas titled the work “Criminal Physiognomies.” The criminal features are apparent in the face of the Little Dancer, too, and given the public’s reaction to the work, it would seem Degas had succeeded.
What fascinated me most of all, though, as I delved deeper into the stories of Marie and the boys, was the possibility that the link between the artworks went further. All three youths had inhabited the same underbelly of Paris, and I could not stop myself from imagining that their paths had crossed, the ways in which such a meeting might have altered destinies.
I would tell both stories, and I would intertwine their lives, too.
Cathy Marie Buchanan explores the dark side of the Belle Epoque in The Painted Girls, the story of real-life sisters Marie and Antoinette van Goethem—and their artistic careers in a time when such pursuits often made for difficult lives for women. After a childhood of dance lessons, Buchanan currently limits her artistic pursuits to writing, which she does from her home in Toronto.