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Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas's Masterpiece

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This absorbing, heartfelt work uncovers the story of the real dancer behind Degas's now-iconic sculpture, and the struggles of late nineteenth-century Parisian life. She is famous throughout the world, but how many know her name? You can admire her figure in Washington, Paris, London, New York, Dresden, or Copenhagen, but where is her grave? We know only her age, fourteen This absorbing, heartfelt work uncovers the story of the real dancer behind Degas's now-iconic sculpture, and the struggles of late nineteenth-century Parisian life. She is famous throughout the world, but how many know her name? You can admire her figure in Washington, Paris, London, New York, Dresden, or Copenhagen, but where is her grave? We know only her age, fourteen, and the work that she did--because it was already grueling work, at an age when children today are sent to school. In the 1880s, she danced as a "little rat" at the Paris Opera, and what is often a dream for young girls now wasn't a dream for her. She was fired after several years of intense labor; the director had had enough of her repeated absences. She had been working another job, even two, because the few pennies the Opera paid weren't enough to keep her and her family fed. She was a model, posing for painters or sculptors--among them Edgar Degas. Drawing on a wealth of historical material as well as her own love of ballet and personal experiences of loss, Camille Laurens presents a compelling, compassionate portrait of Marie van Goethem and the world she inhabited that shows the importance of those who have traditionally been overlooked in the study of art.


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This absorbing, heartfelt work uncovers the story of the real dancer behind Degas's now-iconic sculpture, and the struggles of late nineteenth-century Parisian life. She is famous throughout the world, but how many know her name? You can admire her figure in Washington, Paris, London, New York, Dresden, or Copenhagen, but where is her grave? We know only her age, fourteen This absorbing, heartfelt work uncovers the story of the real dancer behind Degas's now-iconic sculpture, and the struggles of late nineteenth-century Parisian life. She is famous throughout the world, but how many know her name? You can admire her figure in Washington, Paris, London, New York, Dresden, or Copenhagen, but where is her grave? We know only her age, fourteen, and the work that she did--because it was already grueling work, at an age when children today are sent to school. In the 1880s, she danced as a "little rat" at the Paris Opera, and what is often a dream for young girls now wasn't a dream for her. She was fired after several years of intense labor; the director had had enough of her repeated absences. She had been working another job, even two, because the few pennies the Opera paid weren't enough to keep her and her family fed. She was a model, posing for painters or sculptors--among them Edgar Degas. Drawing on a wealth of historical material as well as her own love of ballet and personal experiences of loss, Camille Laurens presents a compelling, compassionate portrait of Marie van Goethem and the world she inhabited that shows the importance of those who have traditionally been overlooked in the study of art.

30 review for Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas's Masterpiece

  1. 5 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    It was on an eighth grade school trip to the Chicago Art museum when I fell in love with the paintings of Degas. His painitings of ballerinas fascinated me, at that time I thought the life of a ballerina was one of elegance and grace. Of course, now I know it also includes a great deal of work and pain. This is a slim book, and instead of focusing on his paintings, though of course that is mentioned on well, focuses on a sculpture he made of a young ballerina. Her features distorted to look almo It was on an eighth grade school trip to the Chicago Art museum when I fell in love with the paintings of Degas. His painitings of ballerinas fascinated me, at that time I thought the life of a ballerina was one of elegance and grace. Of course, now I know it also includes a great deal of work and pain. This is a slim book, and instead of focusing on his paintings, though of course that is mentioned on well, focuses on a sculpture he made of a young ballerina. Her features distorted to look almost humanoid, the public found her ugly, unacceptable. Degas never showed this sculpture again. He had turned to sculpture because his eyesight had begun to fail, but at that time those were never accepted as much as his paintings. The book is part art history, part a history of the times, the young ballet girls called rats, from families who needed them to earn money at a young age. Degas himself and how his art was accepted and what as. "Edward Degas captured an unfiltered reality and provoked disquieting sensations. He questioned society. In this sense, he was much more a realist than Impressionist. His contemporaries, in fact, reproached him for pushing his realism to extremes.It was a well and good to hear down "the partition dividing the atelier from ordinary life" but he went to far in applying "the major rule of naturalism," which was to exaggerate physical and moral ugliness." The girl in the sculpture was named Marie, she was one of the young ballet rats. It was a hard life, little money, little food. Not much is known about her but what is known is shared. An understanding of her comes from the realities of the time, how those working poor and women in general were viewed. Such luminaries as Zola, Matisse an others also have bits here and there. An interesting book for those who enjoy a slice of art history, but don't expect this book to just be about the life of young Marie.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Paulette Illmann

    Having read the historical fiction The Painted Girls, when I saw Little Dancer Aged Fourteen on the shelf at my local library, I couldn't resist. So little is known of the girl who posed for the famous statue by Degas, the book is a mere 147 pages, most of it trying to piece together what is known of the young ballet dancers of the time with the reality of one. It's like a genealogy project that provides some answers, but leaves you with more questions.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Msimone

    Before this book, I thought of the artist as an impressionist who captured the technique of dancers in various poses on stage and off . Degas captured them alone, in class, on stage, or among their demi-monde fans who hung around them at the Paris Opera. I never thought about how the personal life of the artist, nor his fascination with the lives of the young dancers who modeled for him could be revealed in his art. I recently visited the Clark Museum in Williamstown where I saw one of the 22 ca Before this book, I thought of the artist as an impressionist who captured the technique of dancers in various poses on stage and off . Degas captured them alone, in class, on stage, or among their demi-monde fans who hung around them at the Paris Opera. I never thought about how the personal life of the artist, nor his fascination with the lives of the young dancers who modeled for him could be revealed in his art. I recently visited the Clark Museum in Williamstown where I saw one of the 22 casts of the Little Dancer Age Fourteen. The sculpture which is three-feet tall, stands in fourth position, her hands clasped behind her back, her chest trust forward, and her head, with half-closed eyes, tilted upward. Surrounding, the sculpture are various drawings of dancers, and small bronzes of other ballerine in various poses. My impression before I read this book was that Degas was passionate about ballet and frequently chose the dancers as models in his paintings and sculptures. This book probes deeply into the motivations of the artist, his choice of subject matter, and what the model for his sculpture tells us about the socio-economic realities of ballerine like the "little Dancer. This book also has provoked me to look at the work of Degas in the context of the impressionist movement. In the 19th century when the "Little Dancer" was first exhibited, the public thought that the sculpture was remarkably odd, more like a mannequin than a sculpture because it was made of way, costumed with a tulle skirt, and accessorized with ribbon and a bodice and covered by a glass box. Was this art or subversion? Critical reaction to Degas' sculpture postulates some theories about whether the artist intentionally intended to shock the public. The author's detailed descriptions of the existence of the ballerine or "rats" of the Paris Opera may have provoked the audience to look more closely at the model, to see the pathos hidden beneath her fierce stance. This book unveils the identity of the model and pieces together her hard-scrabble life. It is poor and ugly. Laurens' investigation into the identity of the little dancer reveals as much about how 19th century society viewed the art of Degas as how the artist was more a realist than impressionist. He rendered the truth of the world he saw at the Paris Opera and in the sculpture of the little dancer posed for him in his studio at Place Pigalle.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Cat

    I enjoy works by Degas! Receiving this book was a real joy!This short read is a bio on Marie Genevieve van Goethem, who modeled for Degas to earn extra money. She was a young dancer for the Paris Opera, but did not advance very far in the profession. It didn't pay very well either. The story also tells of her family and the poverty they suffered. One really never thinks about the models used in paintings and sculptures, so finding books written about them is really very fascinating. This one is I enjoy works by Degas! Receiving this book was a real joy!This short read is a bio on Marie Genevieve van Goethem, who modeled for Degas to earn extra money. She was a young dancer for the Paris Opera, but did not advance very far in the profession. It didn't pay very well either. The story also tells of her family and the poverty they suffered. One really never thinks about the models used in paintings and sculptures, so finding books written about them is really very fascinating. This one is well researched, but even someone not versed in art will enjoy the tale. It's a good one!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ann

    I began thinking it was an imagination of the life of the model. I found, rather, a careful and thoughtful thesis delving into the relationships of artist, model, and sculpture. We meet Marie and Degas in their parallel lives and their respective roles in society. That sounds very academic, but the book rather creates a nebulus and then finds a spark of truth, I think. Fascinating read; drags a bit in the middle, and then really takes off. Stick it out until the end - it's worth it.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

    The last book I read in 2018. Not sure that this is the true story behind Degas' masterpiece so much as part of the true story but it was interesting & I learning some things & although the book was a little draggy in parts it got better & was worth finishing & was overall rather thought-provoking which is not a bad thing for a book to be

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jamie

    Really more of a lengthy essay than a biography of the dancer. Interesting about the nature of art both then and now, with a lot to think about in terms of class that feels contemporary (not in a good way)

  8. 4 out of 5

    Erin Simone

    "The sculpture allows the emptiness around her to be suggested: no scenery, no company. You walk around a sculpture, taking it in from all sides the way you might examine a question from every angle. The 'little Nana' stands against a backdrop of nothingness." p. 38

  9. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    Fascinating look, both at Degas, and at the culture behind the young ballet dancers of the time.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Marie

    I received an uncorrected ARC in exchange for an honest review. Rating: 3.8 / 5 In Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas's Masterpiece, Camille Laurens explores the story behind the girl who posed for Edgar Degas’ famous Little Dancer sculpture. We learn her name, Marie Genevieve van Goethem, and gain insight into the life of a “little rat” at the Paris Opera. Not much is known about her - her time spent working for very little wages at the Opera, posing for artists like Degas, I received an uncorrected ARC in exchange for an honest review. Rating: 3.8 / 5 In Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas's Masterpiece, Camille Laurens explores the story behind the girl who posed for Edgar Degas’ famous Little Dancer sculpture. We learn her name, Marie Genevieve van Goethem, and gain insight into the life of a “little rat” at the Paris Opera. Not much is known about her - her time spent working for very little wages at the Opera, posing for artists like Degas, and what became of her after. Laurens quickly and vividly paints the picture of what van Goethem would have encountered struggling in late 19th century Paris as part of the young, working class poor. The book was more along the lines of a very long essay that I could have seen published in, for example, a journal for the arts. For such a short novel, I felt it was very well-researched, though I am no expert in Parisian or art history, and easily digestible for someone not familiar with the Little Dancer sculpture. Not only did I get a sense of the history behind Degas, as the famous artist, but I appreciated that Laurens took to telling the side of the story of those often overlooked in artwork. The book opened my eyes to the not-so-pretty history of the Paris Opera and impressions of those spectators who initially viewed the sculpture in the context of Parisian attitudes at the time. I thoroughly enjoyed how Laurens contributed pieces of herself and her experiences to the story, which I think made it easier for me to establish an emotional connection to the Little Dancer. Though I liked the book, I did feel at times that it was a bit disorganized or hard to track where certain parts were headed, like following along with Laurens as she conducted her research. I can understand though that some readers may be able to better appreciate making discoveries along with the narrator.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sandrine D’Angelo

  12. 5 out of 5

    Vivek

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jen

  14. 5 out of 5

    Shoshana

  15. 5 out of 5

    Philip Bagley

  16. 5 out of 5

    Katie

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Claretto

  18. 5 out of 5

    Katie

  19. 4 out of 5

    Paige Mcgreevy

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jenny

  21. 5 out of 5

    Robert M. Arensman

  22. 4 out of 5

    Liz

    This would have made an excellent long piece in a magazine. Instead , a not very substantial story was bloated into a short book. Still, I think it is wonderful that the author gave the the model Marie Genevieve van Goethem so much consideration.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jessie Denbow

  24. 5 out of 5

    Paul Hammer

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kitty Galore

  26. 4 out of 5

    Audrey

  27. 5 out of 5

    Liv

  28. 5 out of 5

    Abiman

  29. 5 out of 5

    Connie

  30. 4 out of 5

    Bryonny

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