“Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” is a historical look into Paris in the 1880s when Edgar Degas created the infamous bronze figure of a ballet dancer. Using historical research, author Camille Laurens, compiles the story surrounding the life of artist Edgar Degas and the model who posed for “The Little Dancer.”
Known as a sculptor and a painter, Degas was a part of the conservative bourgeois. His adoration of dancers and singers was finally realized when he discovered the Paris Opera. He purchased a subscription for three shows a week and was granted backstage access. It was there that Degas met Antionette Van Goethem, eldest sister to Marie Genevieve Van Goethem, the younger dancer who posed as “The Little Dancer.”
Van Goethem was a Parisian girl who sought training, a small income to sustain her and a meager contribution to her family. She was from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Paris and struggled to survive in poverty.
Due to her mother’s tenacity, Van Goethem and her sister found employment at the Paris Opera, but the opera was not known for treating the dancers well. They were referred to as “little rats” and the opera granted them only a small wage to earn scant meals while they rehearsed long hours.
The dancers could find a patron of sorts, in the pool of those who supported the opera, but doing so often came at the cost of comprising their morals.
Degas himself was born to parents who helped him begin his artistic endeavors and acquire a higher station in life. His mother was born in Louisiana and her family remained in the United States. His father was a banker who survived bankruptcy and considered artwork a luxury item. As a true artist, Degas maintained that artwork was a necessity for living.
Degas created artwork and sold enough of it to support his lifestyle, including becoming a voracious collector of his contemporaries, Manet, Pissarro, van Gogh, Delacroix, and others. Through the years, Degas accumulated more than 500 masterpieces and thousands of lithographs.
During Degas’s lifetime, his artwork wasn’t well received by elite art circles, but his work was celebrated posthumously. Following Degas’s death in 1917, his close circle of friends and family found over 150 wax statuettes in his home, including “The Little Dancer.”
The family’s decision to send “The Little Dancer” and other wax statuettes to the A. A. Hebrard foundry in Paris to be cast in bronze, contrasted the artist’s personality and wishes, yet the 22 bronze castings became a celebration of Degas’s work and life. Collectors and museums sought the limited edition pieces and in 1971 a bronze casting with the statue's original clothing was sold for $380,000. Its value has increased decade after decade.
The French government did not regard the original wax sculpture highly, so they permitted the piece to leave the country for a mere $160,000. Today, the only bronze casting that remains in France is at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. In 1956, Paul Mellon, an American, purchased the original wax sculpture.
In this book, Laurens pans outward from the stage of the Paris Opera, to the studio of Degas, to Paris and the art world, steered at the time by Impressionists in the 1880s. “The Little Dancer: Aged Fourteen” was originally written in French, and the translation into English is not written with a flowing cadence, but it does have rich historical context that helps one have a deeper appreciation of the artwork and the time in which it was created. It will no doubt enrich the world’s adoration of “The Little Dancer.”