Book Review: The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan
I’ve recently finished reading The Painted Girls by Canadian author Cathy Marie Buchanan. (2012, available in paperback, hardcover or ebook).
I realize I’m a little late to the game, as it’s been available for a good while now. But nonetheless, some of you out there might not have gotten around to it either.
The novel is historical fiction set in Paris around 1880, told from the alternating points of view of two sisters.
Marie, age 15 who is a student striving for a position as a dancer at the opera, and Antoinette, 19, who is already washed out as a ballerina, working as a walk-on extra and desperately avoiding her alcoholic mother’s career as a laundress.
As an aside, Ms. Buchanan has been chastised on various book review sites for the names Marie and Antoinette being too cute for credibility – however this bit is a true fact, not the author’s choice, so any tut-tuts should be aimed at the girls’ mother.
( Sketches after Degas )
Being an artist myself, I was initially brought to the book by Marie’s story.
As a “petit rat” – a student of ballet from ages 10 to 15, the young Marie is pushing herself to the limits of her growing body, attempting to rise to the physical demands of the upcoming examinations – hoping for promotion to the stage, and the steady wage it will earn.
Every calorie she can beg, borrow or have filched by Antoinette, is crucial to her success. Naturally the stipend allowed dancers is not sufficient for a girl without family, so she works early mornings kneading dough in a bakery to save the strength in her legs for the days training.
Her focused drive to master the demands of the ballet earns her the eye of artist Edgar Degas, who was well known to haunt the opera school, sketching in classes and rehearsals, obsessively drawing the girls in their awkward postures of exhaustion.
He is involved in a search for a new modern mode of drawing that is aggressively stripped of romance. Nothing idealized, only reality laid bare.I found Marie’s story the best part of the book’s historic recreation. We experience the obstacle course laid out before these aspiring dancing girls. The unflinching standards of performance, dress, and decorum that serve as a sieve, filtering out all but the most ruthlessly determined and privileged.
Marie is only able to advance by selfish dedication to art, and the opportunity to earn a small wage modelling nude for the 50 year old Degas.
The girl’s never very deep innocence is peeled off bit by bit as Degas’ drawings of her developing body become sought after by ardent collectors.
Meanwhile her success as a dancer becomes a two-edged sword. Elevation inside the opera putting greater and greater demand on her to pay for tutors, purchase silk slippers and tarlatan skirts.Ms. Buchanan brings us one of the fascinating stories in 19th century art. The real life story of the models behind the paintings.
In some ways the turning point of the story is Degas’ wax model La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans. (The Little Dancer).
This wax model over an armature of wire, leather and old paint brushes, dressed in actual clothing and with a wig of real hair, becomes the ultimate expression of Degas’ obsession with drawing Marie.
However, public reception to the sculpture was mixed.
The 3/4 life size figure is lauded as the first truly modern sculpture. A triumph of realism in art. Degas turning his back on the pearly-white floating nymphs found cluttering every over-stuffed parlor and gilded brothel in Paris.
Yet, The Little Dancer was simultaneously rejected as simply too ugly. A female ape, a barbarian Aztec, a sinewy-muscled circus acrobat.
Given the frank realism of the work, reaction to the sculpture is also the honest truth that Paris’ elite would never truly accept an underfed guttersnipe like Marie as a prima ballerina.( Monsieur Degas )
Of course, I’ve neglected to mention a whole other story in the book – that of the older sister Antoinette. Her tale is torn from the headlines of the time.
We see her diamond-hard stubbornness, pressed into her by the crushing poverty inherited from a dead father and neglectful mother, inevitably turn into an ill-fated love affair and an inexorable slide into the underbelly of Parisian society.
Hers is the life of a failed dancer, an actress of little note, and a girl looking for more options than her social class allows.
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