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Book of the week: LITTLE DANCER AGED FOURTEEN by Camille Laurens

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

Little dancer aged fourteen has been translated from French to English by Willard Wood and will be published by Les Fugitives on June 15th 2020.

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—gruelling work, at an age when children today are sent to school. In the 1880s, she danced as a petit 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 labour; the director had had enough of her repeated absences. She had been working another job, even two, because the few pennies the Opera paid would not be 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 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.

Camille Laurens is an award-winning French novelist and essayist. She received the Prix Femina, one of France’s most prestigious literary prizes, in 2000 for Dans ces bras-là, which was published in English as In His Arms in 2004. Her 2016 novel Celle que vous croyez, was recently released as major motion picture, Who You Think I Am, starring Juliette Binoche.


« Degas approached Marie. He made a tight circle around her. “My nose close to my model, I examine her,” he said. The object for him was “to sum up [the model] in a small piece, but one whose structure is solid and doesn’t lie.” The imperative was always to arrive at truth. Solidity and firmness were correlates. Despite what one might imagine about ballet, Degas was more interested in earth than in air. Marie, like the eventual sculpture, was firmly planted on both feet, which were placed in rulebook position; her balance came from being anchored to the ground. Her small and lanky but well-muscled body resembled the bodies of our dancers today, giving her a “modern look, very Parisian and honed.” In order to measure and compare the different parts of the body correctly, Degas used a special instrument, a proportional divider, which frightened the models when he brought the point too close to their faces, sometimes gashing them. The jottings in his notebooks have the look of surrealist poems: “the hands are 9 noses,” “the arm from shoulder to wrist is 2 heads”... measurements then had to be reduced to the scale he had chosen, which was less than life-sized. Yet respecting proportions was not his top priority. Without going as far as Ingres, his master, who blithely disregarded human proportions, once adding three vertebrae to an odalisque’s back, Degas took occasional liberties with anatomical reality. “The arms are too long, and this from the man who, yardstick in hand, measures proportions so meticulously,” joked Gauguin.

Dancer’s right leg that seems abnormally long, intentionally accentuating the sense of relaxed stretching. Although Degas did not make his sculpture life-sized, he could have done so, as Marie was less than five feet tall, but a recent scandal had rocked the art world. In 1877, Rodin was criticized for using molds taken directly from his models to make The Age of Bronze and other statues. Mold making was widely used in the nineteenth century by various scientific disciplines to preserve an object’s impression, but it was felt to detract from the artistic value of sculpture. The artist was meant to “represent” reality, not replicate it or trace it directly from nature. As Renoir put it crudely, a work shouldn’t “stink of the model.” That’s what made the difference between art and mere skill or technical expertise. Taking a direct mold from nature should be kept for anatomical models, which the sculptor might use for inspiration but nothing more. To ward off this line of criticism and avoid polemics, Degas altered the scale of his works. All his sculptures are less than life-sized.

Yet sculpture would seem to be an art that is inseparable from technique. In practice, after drawing a great number of preparatory sketches, what did Degas do in the midst of his studio while Marie struggled to maintain her pose? He sat on a kind of saddle, from which he often arose to approach his model. He touched her, traced the lines of her body, probed its density, poked at her joints, studied the insertion of the muscles. If we are to believe Gauguin, who visited Degas at work, the sculptor looked for the true in “the human carcass, the skeletal frame, its articulated movement.”

From this coming and going, a wire skeleton would gradually take shape, roughly corresponding to the intended figure. Its different parts—the torso, legs, etc.—would be attached with cable or string to metal plaques. In a moving letter to Henri Rouart, Degas wrote: “Do you remember one day, you were saying about someone that he no longer assembled, a term used in medicine for defective minds. I’ve always remembered it. My eyesight no longer assembles, or does so with such difficulty that I’m often tempted to give up and sleep, never to wake.” Perhaps this composite mannequin allowed the artist to avert his anguish.

A statuette of the naked Marie, three-quarters the size of the final work, shows that Degas made maquettes to start with, trying things, making corrections, improving this position, this proportion, and also experimenting with more or less elaborate technical solutions. Recent X-rays of the finished sculpture show it to be chock full random objects, starting with paintbrush handles. There were also rags, wood shavings, cotton wadding, drinking glasses, and cork stoppers, all taken from Degas’s immediate environment, a kind of haphazard improvisation in keeping with his model. His realism in fact draws its power from the perfect appropriateness of treatment to subject. His art, at once poor in means and meticulous, a brilliant makeshift improvisation, was adapted to Marie, a little girl who was living in poverty and without sophistication but who nonetheless tried to achieve purity of movement. By raising the lowly to the level of art, by using crude techniques and common materials, Degas opened up and freed a vast space for creation. His eclecticism was revolutionary. A whole tendency of the art of the twentieth century would arise from this little cobbled figure. The year of its making, 1881, was also the birth year of...Picasso, for example.

Onto this metal armature, stuffed with whatever came within reach, Degas smeared by hand or with a spatula several layers of colored wax, whose smooth surface suggested skin, though without reproducing its natural color. It’s the same wax that, variously pigmented, would also cover the human hair that Degas had bought at the wigmaker’s, the specially tailored linen bodice, and the real ballet slippers, shaded a delicate pink. Only the tutu would be added intact to the finished sculpture. The beeswax, whose pellucid aspect catches the light, was mixed with clay and plasticine, which is a greasy, clay-like substance that has the advantage of remaining soft for some time, allowing the sculptor to shape and reshape the material until it approached the ideal contour. This is why Degas refused to use more solid materials. “Have it cast? Bronze is for eternity. What gives me pleasure is always having to start over.” And according to Renoir, the reason Degas did not exhibit the work in 1880 as planned was that he wanted to reshape the mouth, which did not satisfy him. X-rays have shown that he remodeled the head several times, lengthening the neck proportionately with a wire coiled like a spring, and repositioning the shoulders. He had a reputation for endlessly reworking his pieces, inspiring his friend J.-É. Blanche to comment: “The slightest pretext served him to torture the form, to extract from it a cruel synthesis that joined the observation of a misogynist and a surgeon.” »

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