Somewhere along the line, I’ve become an art snob. One day I realized that I automatically snorted a little when someone told me how cool M.C. Escher’s pictures are, and that when I replied I would use the phrase “graphic work” to describe the drawings. And this attitude of mine also goes for, among other things, Degas’ ballerinas.
So I couldn’t help smirking to myself when I found myself enjoying my brand new copy of Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls. Surely, I thought to myself, I should be spending my morning commute hunched over a tatty, second-hand Penguin paperback, not smoothing my hands over the beautiful red and gilt hardback cover of a book about nineteenth century French ballet girls.
But not only was I enjoying the look and feel of Buchanan’s book in my hands, I was also really enjoying the story.
It follows several years (1878-1881) in the lives of two of the impoverished young sisters van Goethem. In a bid to support her family after the death of her father, the younger one, Marie, joins the ballet school at the Paris Opera House. She will become the model for Degas’ statue, Young dancer, aged 14. Antoinette, the elder sister, also seeks an honest wage, but her relationship with the young, loutish Emil Abadie leads her further and further astray.
Paris in the late nineteenth century comes up a lot in literature, film and pop culture in general. The Phantom of the Opera, Moulin Rouge, the end of Midnight in Paris, that poster of Le Chat Noir. It’s the Belle Époque, a time in French history defined in part by an outpouring of artistic brilliance. Lots of defining features of the era come up in Buchanan’s book as well. But she’s opted to show us the good and the bad: Absinthe addiction, the Impressionists, painted prostitutes with bad teeth, the Opera, life on the slopes of Montmartre, Baron Housemann, the boulevards.
But these elements don’t overwhelm the narrative. Rather, Buchanan carefully demythologizes the historical facts as readily as she does her main characters. Sure the two sisters love each other, but they’re separated by a marked difference in personality. Sure Degas is doing something new and exciting with his art – doing something important – but he’s also kind of a creep.
It’s clear that a lot of research went into to the writing, but the introduction of fact is never labored in the story. Marie van Goethem really was the model for Degas’ sculpture, and really was in the ballet. Her sister’s lover Emil Abadie was also in Paris around the same time. Though there’s no record that they met, she weaves together subtle connections that suggest they might have. The geography feels real and familiar. Sculptures, places historical figures are described without being adored.
Also represented are various philosophical or quasi-scientific ideas of the day, among these the work of Cesare Lombroso. His writings presented evidence that the shape of the skull and the human face could indicate criminal impulses on the part of the individual. These ideas impress the main characters, who think about it, even believe it. This way of thinking positions it in time as firmly as the descriptions of the interiors of the Parisian prisons and washhouses.
It speeds up towards the end, and is an ultimately satisfying and informative read. One great touch is the author’s website, mentioned at the beginning of the book, where she’s posted images of all the art mentioned in the book.
So as much as I foresaw this post, as I opened The Painted Girls for the first time, being a scathing list of reasons Degas’ ballerinas are overdone, I’m afraid that particular post will have to wait for another day. Because even though this book has a pretty red cover, it’s lovely and smart and cool on the inside. Maybe I should stop being such a snob and learn to look deeper.