Lit­tle Dancer Aged Four­teen: The True Story be­hind De­gas’s Master­piece

Camille Laurens, Wil­lard Wood (Trans­la­tor) Other Press (NOVEM­BER) Hard­cover $22.95 (176pp) 978-1-59051-958-5

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews | Adult Fiction / Nonfiction - KAREN RIGBY

Lit­tle Dancer Aged Four­teen il­lu­mi­nates a slice of art his­tory with rav­ish­ing acu­ity. Camille Laurens ex­am­ines Marie van Goethem, the young model and dancer of De­gas fame, in a trib­ute that melds re­search with quo­ta­tions, in­tel­li­gent in­quiry, and the un­der­side of the Paris Opera in the nine­teenth cen­tury. In rhyth­mic trans­la­tion, the face be­hind the sculpture puzzles and be­guiles.

From the first ex­hi­bi­tion of Lit­tle Dancer to the bo­hemian ar­rondisse­ment where De­gas worked to the back­stage tragedies of girls known as “rats,” who were pushed into danc­ing out of poverty and then into sex­ual trysts with would-be pa­trons, Laurens recre­ates an at­mos­phere where child­hood, as it’s now re­garded, never ex­isted, and where De­gas, de­spite be­ing grouped with the im­pres­sion­ists, sought a re­al­ism that sparked out­rage.

Sec­tions that de­tail the re­cep­tion of Lit­tle Dancer con­tex­tu­al­ize the neg­a­tive re­sponses. Laurens makes a case for the ways in which class, fear, and de­sire braided into crit­ics’ per­cep­tions. For­ays into phys­iog­nomy, nat­u­ral­ism, De­gas’s un­usual choice of wax for his medium, and the re­viled, revered sta­tus of dancers of­fer pos­si­bil­i­ties for the mind­set of the pe­riod. More than con­sid­er­ing the sculpture, the book is a fas­ci­nat­ing tour through the past.

As much as bi­ogra­phies pro­vide an out­line for Van Goethem’s and De­gas’s lives, the un­know­able—their in­ten­tions, thoughts, and feel­ings— takes on elu­sive qual­i­ties that in­spire spec­u­la­tion. When the au­thor con­sid­ers what the model and artist’s first stu­dio en­counter must have been like, the ex­tended scene be­comes a can­vas for larger ques­tions on cre­ativ­ity.

This ex­plo­ration of a work De­gas never in­tended to en­dure re­veals how an in­stant frozen in time can yield peren­nial ques­tions.

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