The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan tells the story of the van Goethem sisters, especially that of Marie, who was the model for the Edgar Degas sculpture Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, (one of which can be seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC).
The novel begins in 1878 with the sisters struggling to survive as dancers – their father dead, their mother an alcoholic unable to support her family.
The Paris Opera Ballet trained and employed many dancers, including the real van Goethem sisters. It is Marie, the middle sister who first comes to the attention of all; although she is not pretty she has the body and the ambition necessary to become a great dancer. The youngest sister, Charlotte, is the beauty, a sweet girl who was the one expected to be the great success as a dancer. The eldest sister, Antoinette, takes on the role of mother, desperately defending her sisters – but succumbs to the attraction of a man who will be her downfall.
There were few choices for poor girls in Paris at this time – dancing was one – but otherwise there is only the choice between drudgery and prostitution. Perhaps there really were other choices but they did not appear to be options for these sisters.
The story is told by each of the sisters in turn as they mature, and as Antoinette finds herself becoming involved in crimes that may have been committed by Emile Abadie, the boy she loves. Emile Abadie and his companions were infamous at the time, and their controversial trial for murder was much written about. Although there is no evidence that the real Antoinette and Emile knew each other, Cathy Marie Buchanan brings them together in her very compassionate novel about the lives of these disenfranchised girls.
Historical fiction is a wonderful genre, allowing readers to learn about the past, and those who peopled an earlier time, while reading for pleasure. It is especially wonderful when discovery is enhanced by an additional experience. Until 24 July 2016 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is exhibiting some of the work of Edgar Degas in an exhibit of his rarely shown monotype prints.
In the mid 1870s Degas began experimenting with monotype printing. These prints are achieved by drawing with ink on a metal plate and making a single print – but Degas took the process a step further by then drawing with pastel on the print, creating some truly exceptional and beautiful images, many of the dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet. By the 1890s he was no longer making monotype prints but had moved on the more familiar works of charcoal and pastel on paper.