At four years old I saw my first ballet, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, and I immediately fell in love with dance. By age six I was taking my first lessons and performing on stage. Sadly, I had to quit when I was fourteen because my parents could no longer afford classes. Around that time I went to the MFA, I walked into the Impressionism gallery and saw Edgar Degas’s sculpture Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer (original model 1878–81, cast after 1921) for the first time. I felt a connection with the young girl, thinking she was fulfilling my dream. I also admired her graceful position, elegant dress, and the beauty of the sculpture’s simple coloring.
Years later I read Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas’s Masterpiece by Camille Laurens, a historian’s perspective. Imagine my surprise when I not only learned about the artwork’s backlash, but I also discovered that the young dancer’s life was not what I had assumed.
According to Laurens, the sculpture was modeled after a ballerina named Marie Genevieve van Goethem, the second of three sisters born to poverty-stricken parents in Paris. Rather than being driven by their own passion, Marie and her sisters were likely pushed into performing for the Paris Opera Ballet by their mother for financial gain. We don’t know much more about Marie’s life, but we do know it was common for Parisian girls as young as six to be plucked off the streets and put through intense ballet training, only to be scorned by upper-class opera goers for their low status and nicknamed “little rats.” In worst-case scenarios, dancers’ parents prostituted their young daughters out to male patrons. It’s possible Marie found herself in a situation like this.
If her life in the opera wasn’t hard enough, Marie was called ugly when people first saw Degas’s completed sculpture of the young dancer. As a writer who regularly stresses over failure, I can only imagine how hard it was for Degas to see his hard work denigrated by the public. But more than that, my heart goes out to the little girl, Marie.
When I visit the sculpture now, I don’t just see a dancer, I see a survivor. I still admire the graceful pose, elegant dress, and beautiful simplicity, but now I look at her face and wonder, What is she thinking? Is she sad about her life? Is she hopeful for the future? Is she scared? We know little about Marie’s life after she sat for Degas, but I like to think she found peace. I wish she could have known the impact her image has left behind. I hope her story continues to inspire dancers and artists of all kinds to fulfill their goals—just as it has inspired me.