Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: Life of the model for Degas’s artwork

Camille Laurens uses empathy, criticism and biography to sculpt understanding of a girl

Marie von Goethem was born in 1865 into a large family of poor Belgian immigrants. She spent long, punishing hours rehearsing dances for a meagre salary.

Marie von Goethem was born in 1865 into a large family of poor Belgian immigrants. She spent long, punishing hours rehearsing dances for a meagre salary.

In April 1881, Edgar Degas exhibited a new sculpture at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. The sculpture, which the artist titled Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and which was modelled on a young student of the Paris Opera Ballet dance school, caused a sensation. The piece was made of wax, normally just a stage in the process of sculpting, and the statue was dressed in a real ballet tutu, with real ballet slippers and a wig of real hair. It was condemned as ugly, monstrous, repulsive; compared to a monkey, certainly not art.

Now, of course, it is hailed as a masterpiece and, as French author Camille Laurens details in her absorbing publication, the subject of any number of contemporary accounts, many of them fictional: there have been two novels, a television film, even a musical.

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