Being a muse isn't all it's cracked up to be – especially if you're a teenager left to the chilly attentions of Edgar Degas.
It's hard to imagine anything less sentimental than Degas' view of dancers. The artist liked to portray the “little rats,” as they were called, at the end of their endurance, “cracking their joints” in painful poses or about to collapse at the end of a long day.
Cathy Marie Buchanan takes the life of the model for Degas' famous wax sculpture, “The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer” and her sisters for the subjects of her new novel, The Painted Girls.
Marie van Goethem and her two sisters were the daughters of a tailor and a laundress in Montmartre. After their father died in 1878, Marie and her younger sister Charlotte joined the Paris Opera, where they can stave off starvation as little rats in the corps de ballet. A few go on to stardom and the patronage of wealthy men, but for most, it was a physically grueling way to eke out a living.
Their older sister, Antoinette, who had been dismissed from the Opera for being argumentative, wins a small part as a laundress in Emile Zola's “L'Assommoir.” Marie attracts the attention of Degas, who hires her as a model. As far as Degas was concerned, the teenager's starved appearance was all to the good – giving her shoulder blades the appearance of sprouting wings.
Buchanan intertwines what is known of the sisters' lives with the story of murderers whose portraits were also drawn by Degas. The painter espoused a theory formulated by a 19th-century criminologist that certain facial features were predictors of vice: a low, sloping forehead, jutting jaw, and broad cheekbones. After reading about this theory, poor Marie, who has all these features, becomes haunted by the belief that she is doomed to a life of crime because of her appearance.
Buchanan alternates between Marie's and Antoinette's point of view, and treats her girls with far greater care than do their contemporaries, seeing worth in them despite their misjudgments and calamities.
Fans of Susan Vreeland (“Clara and Mr. Tiffany”) and Tracy Chevalier (“Girl With a Pearl Earring”) should enjoy this Belle Epoque tale inspired by Degas' most famous sculpture.