The Famous Degas Sculpture & The Unsavory Story Behind It

“Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” by Camille Laurens is a sad historical fiction novel about three non-fictional sisters in 19th century Paris. One of the sisters is chosen to be the muse for Edgar Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.”

The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen - Edgar Degas sculpture
The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen – Edgar Degas sculpture

“Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” takes you into the hidden truths behind the supposed glitz and glamour of the Parisian Ballet.

The Tragedy of the Van Goethem Sisters

The story highlights one aspect of the struggle of the poor in Paris during the 19th Century, a time of great industrial and cultural change. The novel focuses on three sisters, Antoinette, Marie and Charlotte van Goethem.  In particular, the book portrays the reality of Marie van Goethem who was the girl behind the famous Edgar Degas sculpture “A Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”.

The van Goethem family lived in the slums of Paris. When their father died, they had  little money. Their mother, a laundress, squandered their money on her addiction to absinthe.

The author introduces us to Antoinette, the oldest sister who takes over much of the mothering role. She becomes an extra in the ballet school of the Paris Opera. She also works in additional jobs to earn extra money for rent and food. With her help, the Paris Opera also accepts her younger sisters into the ballet school. Now all three sisters can earn some money.

The chapters alternates between the voices of Antoinette and the other sister Marie. 

The Fate of a Young Girl by Degas & his Rich Male Friends

Edgar Degas notices Marie and he hires her to model in the nude. Later he introduces her to a man who pays her to “model”. The author of this novel assumes that Degas himself did not sexually abused the 14-year-old girl. It is well known that Degas was a misogynist. His sexual abstinence was based on his general disgust of females.

We understand from the author of this book that Degas was instrumental in the abuse of that girl whose image brought him to worldwide fame. In fact, it seems that Degas thought that the men having sex with the young dancers was not abuse at all. The men were not abusing but rather the young girls were sinning.

Degas assumed that the girls used these ’interludes’ to get something from these old rich men.

Edgar Degas ballerinas
Edgar Degas ballerinas “Little Rats”

Why Degas Called These Young Ballerinas “Little Rats”

Girls who worked as ballet dancers in the 19th century Paris Opera, worked under terrible conditions. Their work day was often 10 to 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week.

When the young dancers reached 13 years of age, men considered them sexually mature. Often rich old men waited in the Opera wings for these young dancers & paid to have sex with them. The men nicknamed these little girls “Little Rats” because they often transmitted syphilis.

Degas Sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”

Sadly, this was common in those times. Rich men would take advantage of these vulnerable ballerinas. Do you think anything has changed today??

Sadly and not surprising, Marie van Goethem didn’t reap any benefits from Degas’ artistic success from this sculpture. When the author of this book researched through the Paris Opera’s account books, she noticed that the Opera docked Marie’s pay and eventually fired her. Probably modeling for Degas interfered with with her Ballet rehearsals.

Marie van Goethem lost out on all accounts!

You will feel heart-broken at the hardships of these vulnerable young girls in those times. The author wants us to consider what we should do with those beautiful artworks that have a dishonorable past.

 Edgar Degas painting of Ballerinas
Edgar Degas Ballerinas

It is a book that keeps you thinking long after you finish reading it. You will never look at Degas’ sculpture or his ballet paintings the same way again……

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For more amazing historical fiction books about Degas, Monet & the other French Impressionists, check out my other recommendations below: