Have you ever studied ballet, or art history? I’ve not and, while I’d pick theatre over dance, I do appreciate the limited ballet performances I have seen, and travel to other cities is consistently punctuated by exploration of art galleries.
With that in mind, it was serendipity that I picked up The Painted Girls by Canadian author Cathy Marie Buchanan as airplane reading shortly before departing for Washington, DC earlier this year. As you’ll see on this page, I was able to see Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1879-81) and a number of his works on display in the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art, which made reading the book an even richer experience.
Buchanan’s words take the shape of iron filigree fiction firmly mounted upon the platform of documented facts surrounding the lives of gifted yet impoverished Parisian sisters Charlotte and Marie van Goethem. In her novel, Buchanan contrasts the beauty and opulence of both ballet and Paris’ La Belle Époque (“Beautiful Era”) with the realities of the raw, compromised lives of the less than privileged.
Both sisters gained acceptance into the Paris Opera’s dance school and it was there, while earning a pittance in the corps de ballet to help support her family, that Marie drew the attention of Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, whom we know as Degas.
Acknowledged for paintings, drawings and printmaking as well as his sculptures, the French artist painted from an early age. He earned a baccalaureate degree in Literature and – yielding to family expectations – embarked on law studies before studying drawing. Degas drew and painted in Italy before serving in France’s National Guard, and subsequently spent a year or so in New Orleans before returning to France in 1873.
While Degas’ passions extended to photography in the late 1800s, we know this realist and Impressionist primarily for his works associated with the world of ballet. Between 1878 and 1881, when he painted, drew and sculpted Marie – one of the Petits Rats of the Paris Opera – in a number of pieces, this contemporary artist was also creating images of convicted criminals.
It’s this world that Buchanan resurrects in The Painted Girls and, more than a year after reading the book, a return visit to Paris meant we had to visit the Palais Garnier. Home to the Paris Opera, it’s a magnificent feast for the senses.
Buchanan‘s The Painted Girls was published in 2012. Like Degas, she pursued education in a different field – biochemistry, in her case – before turning to the arts.