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Book Review: The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan

July 5, 2016

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 Painted Girls_USA The Painted Girls_CA
The Painted Girls on |

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.16June06_Painted Girls (9)
( 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.16June06_Painted Girls (4)a

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.16June06_Painted Girls (3)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.16June06_Painted Girls (2)Ms. Buchanan brings us one of the fascinating stories in 19th century art. The real life story of the models behind the paintings.

16June06_Painted Girls (6)bIn 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.16June06_Painted Girls (8)a( 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.

The intersection of these two girls’ lives is where the real plot develops – and I’ll leave that bittersweet story to your own reading of The Painted Girls.16June06_Painted Girls (10)

You may order the novel from my Amazon affiliate links below – and if you do, you’ll be giving me a small tip, which goes towards maintaining this blog and my drawing practice.

Thanks in advance

The Painted Girls on |


17 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2016 9:17 AM

    This was interesting to me.I just visited Paris and saw Degas’ little dancer.Bautiful.

  2. July 5, 2016 9:23 AM

    This is terrific from the book review (thanks for bringing it to my attention) and the drawings!!! Thanks!

  3. Angela permalink
    July 5, 2016 9:23 AM

    Janice, Evelyn and I saw La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans. (The Little Dancer) in the current Degas exhibition in Melbourne this weekend. I was captivated. Love your sketches in this blog Marc. There must be a series of these are there?

  4. July 5, 2016 9:59 AM

    I ordered it – your sketches are great! Thanks for the tip!


  5. July 5, 2016 10:01 AM

    Is this the same degas sculpture in the Musee Dorsey in Paris? I found it quite beautiful, I have to read this book now

  6. July 5, 2016 10:03 AM

    Is this the same sculpture in the Musee Dorsay in Paris? Quite beautiful, and wonderful to know the story behind it, thanks

  7. July 5, 2016 10:30 AM

    Mark-thanks for the review and your excellent sketches. Another informative book that might interest you and others that captures the experiences of live modeling for artists is—
    Live nude girl : my life as an object by Kathleen Rooney.

  8. July 5, 2016 10:37 AM

    Thank you for this review…I love historical fiction and one with a art theme is even better. MOMA in NYC currently has a large and very impressive exhibit of Degas’ monoprints and sketches that are not to be missed. While there and in Boston I saw 2 castings of Little Dancer….they took my breath away! Anyone who is in the NE cities won’t be disappointed by visiting the MFA/Boston and the MET/NYC. to see the sculpture.

  9. Lynn Patten permalink
    July 5, 2016 10:50 AM

    Wonderful review and sketches, you’ve put so much life into them.

    There is a terrific ballet by the Paris Opera of the Little Dancer, available on DVD or by subscription at – a classical music video site.

    Thanks Marc.

  10. July 5, 2016 10:55 AM

    I read the book awhile ago and recommend it! Your sketches, as always, are fabulous, filled with strength and grace.

  11. July 5, 2016 2:57 PM

    Your artwork is lovely. And Degas’ sculpture, Little Dancer in Paris…she is a sight to behold!

  12. July 6, 2016 5:29 AM

    Traduction disponible: “Les filles peintes”. J’ai adoré! La condition des femmes seules de cette époque était bien misérable. Elles devaient souvent, pour survivre, s’en remettre au bon vouloir de ces messieurs bien nantis.

  13. July 6, 2016 1:22 PM

    Thank you, thank you! So lovely–the review and the glorious paintings. Stunning. I’ve shared your post and sketches on my facebook author page:

    As an artist you might me interested in this:

    • July 6, 2016 1:26 PM

      Hello Cathy! Thanks so much for stopping by the blog. I’m flattered to see you here!

      My apologies for being such a latecomer with this review. (But I hope seeing it pop up on the radar every few months still helps spread the word :)


  14. Fiona Hayes permalink
    July 6, 2016 6:19 PM

    Oh my! What a fabulous review of this book. Many thanks Marc. Your sketches and paintings are exquisite too.

  15. July 7, 2016 8:28 AM

    Thanks for the book review, Marc….I really enjoy novels that are written in historical context, especially those in an art context. They seem to bring that period in time to life.
    A question I have for you is this….would you recommend copying paintings by the masters as a means to improve my sketching? I noticed that you sketched dancers “after Degas”

    • July 8, 2016 9:17 PM

      I think copying is a good way to practice if you enjoy it – but this is what I was taught. >>> When you are copying, you are benefiting from all the myriad decisions the artist before you already made. Color and contrast, composition, etc. You may be unaware of all the reasons why a copy works. The orginal artist is, in a way, helping you draw! So – for that reasons you might learn slower by copying than by drawing from life. SO! If you don’t care about that, and you just want to do it because it’s fun, then I say go for it :)

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