Think of dance and certain anatomical images may spring to mind: the curve or stretch of arms; the extension of legs or bending of knees; the carriage of a torso. But in the case of Edgar Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” the body part that commands attention is the chin. The girl’s undraped limbs, turned-out feet and erect posture speak of submission to ballet’s discipline; her hands, clasped behind her back, radiate stoicism. But her upward tilting chin belies all evidence of docility: Her chin signals ego, stubbornness and a touch of defiance.
The work itself was an act of defiance, argues French writer Camille Laurens in the fascinating new book “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas’s Masterpiece.” By creating a sculpture largely made of wax — with real clothing and shoes — Degas was rejecting prevailing aesthetic rules. In the late 19th century, such a piece would have struck viewers as worthy of a toy shop or milliner’s window, not a high-art showcase. Just as shocking was the subject matter: Degas was paying tribute to one of the young Paris Opera dance trainees known as “little rats,” a group that had a scandalous reputation, largely because of their generally impoverished backgrounds, which made them easy prey for lecherous men. “Little Dancer” stirred controversy when it initially appeared in a Paris exhibition in 1881.
The aura of disrepute subsequently fell away. “Little Dancer,” whose original is housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington , is now widely beloved. The statuette — just over three feet in height — has inspired an array of pop cultural moments, such as fiction imagining the sculpture’s backstory, a photo of Marilyn Monroe with the sculpture, a photo of Misty Copeland as the sculpture, and the musical “Little Dancer,” which ran at the Kennedy Center in 2014. Novelist and essayist Laurens enters the adulatory fray with this volume, which is part historical chronicle, part artfully discursive personal response and part imaginative close reading of the sculpture’s past and present.
Translated elegantly from French by Willard Wood, the book recounts what is known about the sculpture’s model, Marie van Goethem, a laundress’s daughter who was eventually fired from the opera for absenteeism. Laurens resourcefully weaves in further details drawn from the writings of historians, art critics, scholars, and authors and artists including Balzac, Zola, Théophile Gautier, Paul Valéry and Vincent van Gogh. This material illuminates Degas’ lifestyle and creative vision and contextualizes “Little Dancer” within the artistic and intellectual movements of its time.
But Laurens goes further, adding her personal observations and associative, almost poetic interpretations of the material. She parses the semiotics of the sculpture’s wax, relating the material to death masks and embalmment, and muses on how “Little Dancer” reflects — and defies — our awareness of mortality. Not infrequently, she writes in the first person, for instance recounting how, after trawling the online Paris Archives during research for this book, she sought records for her own grandmother, a process that led to a poignant encounter with a family secret.
Readers who prefer straightforward historical and biographical writing may sigh with exasperation when Laurens turns particularly philosophical, imagining, for example, an inner life for Degas’ Little Dancer. “Is she filled with a sense of her own self,” Laurens wonders. “Or does she savor the vacuum at her 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?”
Still, the book is full of thought-provoking insights and revelations. Among the most startling is evidence that Degas shaped the head of the Little Dancer to echo phrenological theories of his day: The jutting chin that seems so adorable now may have been a trait that 19th-century viewers would have associated with degeneracy or criminality, the book suggests. Perhaps Degas was trying to pry open viewers’ eyes to the poverty and prejudice that pushed some “little rats” into prostitution. “To unsettle so as to stimulate thought,” Laurens reflects, “to make art that was critical and served truth, though truth might be cruel, such were the aims of Edgar Degas, in his extreme modernity.” Laurens herself arguably displays similar ambition in this book, which acknowledges cruel truths, displays critical virtuosity and stimulates thought with observations that can be both intriguing and unsettling.
Celia Wren has written about dance, visual art and theater for The Washington Post.
By Camille Laurens, translated from the French by Willard Wood
Other Press. 176 pp. $22.95