Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Face of a Model

In The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan, the author attempts to add dimensions to one of Degas' models, Marie van Goethem.  In fact, Degas also attempted to give Marie three dimensions, in his most famous sculpture, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, which is pictured below.

In her book, Buchanan appears to have invented sisters and a mom for Marie, and given a full back story to the dancer's life.  What surprised me was when I got to the Afterward, and found that Marie's life actually is well known, and that Buchanan, for the most part, stuck to the facts.  At the time that Degas was creating his art, Paris was the center of the art world, and many of the artists of the time were well known.  His contemporaries included Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Pissaro, Cezanne, Gauguin, Cassatt, and Renoir, most of whom were working in Paris at the same time.  The artists of that period must have been like our celebrities today, so much so that a fourteen year old model's name would be known now, more than 100 years later.  Buchanan is not even the first to write about Marie.  From what I have seen, she has at least three other books written about her and a BBC special.  This is not to mention the Marie doll and snow globe, which I would assume could be purchased at the gift shop of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, or in any of the museums where the brass castings of the original wax sculpture are on display.

Nor is Buchanan the first to write about the subjects of famous works of art.  A similar book that I reviewed a few years ago is Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriett Scott Chessman.  The best known recent book about the subject of a painting is The Girl With the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.  My favorite is Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland.  Luncheon tells the story of the making of the famous painting primarily from the point of view of the painter.  Buchanan takes an entirely different approach, and one more similar to Chevalier's, by focusing on the subject of the art instead of the artist.  The interesting thing about Painted Girls is that it attempts to explore Degas' motives, especially in regard to a theory about whether the shape of a person's face can predict their future, but that it does so without Degas' voice.

Marie's life is made for a novel.  As a parent who has paid the "pay to play" fees for the last 15 years, I was surprised that the ballerinas of Paris in the late 1800s started as poor children who were paid to attend the classes.  The pressures on the 14 year old Marie were astonishing.  That the ballet would pay her enough to survive, but expect her to find a sponsor to help her put food on her table was pure exploitation.  Even Degas' treatment of her would now land him on a sex offenders registry.  Buchanan takes some liberties in tying Marie's story together with that of another of Degas' subjects, but she does so in a way that seems possible.

I read this book for The Typical Book Group, and I will write more about it when we get together to discuss it in November.  We are sure to talk about Marie's relationship with her sister, Antoinette, about a choice Marie made, and a certain lie Antoinette told her.  I'll fill you in soon.

Next Up on CD:  Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.  I'm not so sure about this one . . . I'll give it a few discs to decide.

Still Reading:  The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

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