In 1881, Edgar Degas revealed his wax sculpture of an odd-looking young dancer at a Paris exhibition, a piece that caused controversy, revulsion and disgust among viewers. Today, Degas’ dancer is on display in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and it is regarded as a treasure and a breakthrough work of realistic, multidimensional art. In Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, author Camille Laurens attempts to place both the artist and the child who served as Degas’ model, Marie van Goethem, in context, yet much of the mystery surrounding them remains, haunting writer and reader alike.
Marie was born into a family of Belgian refugees, who were barely surviving in the slums of Paris. Managed by her mother, she became a “rat,” one of many young children who scurried across the dance floor in Paris Opera productions. The girls attracted the interest and desire of unscrupulous, lusty, upperclass male patrons. Paris in the 1880s had yet to address child labor protections; rehearsals and performances were grueling and often led to prostitution or, as with Marie, modeling, with its implied intimacies. Yet the work also paid better than most jobs children could physically do. At 14, Marie became a model for the eccentric, solitary Edgar Degas.
Degas’ life and art become familiar in Laurens’ detailed telling, but his relationship with Marie and her ultimate fate remain obscure. Laurens hints at many possibilities, admitting that she is haunted by this child of wax, whose insides Degas filled with the flotsam and jetsam of his cluttered studio. Comparing Marie to the tragic figure of the exploited Marilyn Monroe, who once posed next to the sculpture, and today’s Syrian child refugees working in Turkish textile factories to support their families, Laurens believes Degas sculpted “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” to communicate that “his own present time is universal, that he projects it into all times, that he informs the future with his hands.”