‘Her name was Marie Geneviève Van Goethem.’

March 27, 2019 at 9:26 pm (Art, Family)

  The above sentence opens the first chapter of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Camille Laurens.

Marie Van Goethem, originally from Belgium, was one of three sisters. She joined the Paris Opera, primarily because her family needed the money. (Young members of the corps de ballet were frequently called “les petits rats” – Little Rats, or Opera Rats.) When the opportunity to pose for Edgar Degas came along, it meant additional income.

When completed, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was not universally loved. In fact, the reaction of contemporary viewers was quite the opposite. They had their reasons. Laurens describes of the zeitgeist prevalent in the Paris of the 1880s:

France was industrializing, and its working class was  growing in importance….The ruling classes needed to be reassured about their privileges. Small wonder they clung to theories that “proved” the natural superiority of the bourgeoisie over the working class, the rich over the poor, whites over blacks, and men over women.

With regard to the sculpture itself:

The bourgeois viewer looked at the work and saw his own antithesis. Hie preference was for Madonnas, or for plump, healthy young women. He could not fathom why a common, hardworking Opera rat with the face of a “monkey” and a “depraved” aspect should be the subject of a work of art.

Degas himself was a complex personality, not an easy person to know. At one point, the author offers the observation:

It seems that Degas shared the misogyny that was rampant at the end of the nineteenth century….

Yet Degas and Mary Casssatt were good friends and genuinely admired each others’ work:

The American expatriate painter Mary Cassatt and the French artist Edgar Degas formed a long, if tumultuous, artistic relationship and friendship in the late 19th century that lasted for decades. The two admired each other’s work during the early 1870s, years before they met. In 1877, Degas visited Cassatt in her studio—possibly their first official meeting—to personally invite her to exhibit with the Impressionists, bringing her into the fold of the Parisian avant-garde.

From The Saint Louis Art Museum site

The friendship endured for many years. Neither artist ever married.

The story of their relationship is not told in Camille Laurens’s book. Yet her intense focus on Marie and her likeness in bronze pays dividends. She forces us to look more closely, and to question:

What is she thinking about? What is her inner world like? Do her face and pose reflect concentration or relaxation? Boredom or pleasure? Is she taking herself elsewhere, and if so, to what foreign parts? Is she filled with a sense of her own self or does she savor the vacuum at its core? What lies behind her closed eyes, her skinny chest? Tears, dreams. unspeakable emotions? Or a kind of absence, a beneficent nothingness in suspended time?

This past weekend, while we were in Chicago, I looked forward to our now customary visit to the Art Institute. I wanted to contemplate Marie once again, with those questions in mind. And my granddaughter Etta also wanted to see her again.

The Little Dancer, in her accustomed place in the Art Institute

Alas, when we reached the gallery where the French Impressionist paintings are hung and where we have heretofore encountered the Little Dancer, she was not there. There was information desk right outside the gallery, but the individual staffing it was sadly clueless as to Marie’s whereabouts. Had she somehow mysteriously absconded? Yet another question…. A small couplet stole into my brain:

Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen,
Little Dancer can’t be seen.

Ah, well; Etta and I must hope for better luck next time. And of course, it’s not as though we didn’t have plenty of other objets d’art with which to occupy ourselves:

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, 1740-1741 by Michele Marieschi

 

Portrait of Marthe-Marie Tronchin, 1758-61, by Jean-Etienne Liotard

 

Calvary, Artist Unknown, Guatemala, 1760-1800

 

Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles, painted in 1889, just a year before his death

 

Being of a scientific bent, Etta was interested in this device, located in a corner of one of the galleries. A museum guard, delighted by her question, explained that it was a hygrometer, a device for monitoring humidity in enclosed spaces.

 

This time around my favorite new discovery:

Adoration of the Christ Child, Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen and Workshop, 1470-1475

 

And of course, we always make time to revisit our favorites – which are hopefully in their usual place:

Roman Theatre Mask, with Etta imitating as best she can

And finally, Un dimanche après-midi à l’îsle de la Grande Jatte, par Georges Seurat, 1886-1886:

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Here is Camille Laurens’s poignant conclusion to the story of Edgar Degas and Marie van Goethem:

The shade of Marie melts into the deep shadow that Degas himself disappeared into. Her ghost is carried off, buried  with his remains. Nothing can separate them any longer. If we  take their two lives as one, at that point in time when  their trajectories intersected, like a momentary couple glimpsed through  a pane of glass, the resulting life is neither resounding nor insignificant. It is a life of hard  work. And also sadness, I believe. Yet it is a remarkable life, sovereign and vast in import. Both of them while still alive, she posing and he sculpting, had  the experience of death. The little statue restores their absent presence. It is their monument, their requiem.

A very special book, slight in length yet filled with grace and meaning, beautifully written by Camille Laurens and meticulously translated from the French by Willard Wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Kathy Davis said,

    We took Etta in January and she did get to see Little Dancer on that visit.
    I read the book and loved it. It is always a treat to visit the “old friend” when we visit Chicago

    Hope you are both well.
    Kathy and Carl

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Kathy, Thanks for this. I’m glad that you & Carl have also had the opportunity to share this experience with Etta!

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