Marie was a fourteen-year-old ballet student (un petit rat) at the Paris Opéra, where Degas (see VIDEO) often drew and painted. The figure was nude to begin with, but he later dressed her in clothing made of real fabric - cream-coloured silk for the bodice, tulle and gauze for the tutu, and silk slippers. It was first shown in the sixth Impressionist exhibition held in Paris in 1881, but the work had little to do with Impressionism. It was far more a work of great realism.
The exact relationship between Marie van Goethem and Edgar Degas is a matter of debate. It was usual in 1880 for the 'petits rats' of the Paris Opéra to seek protectors from among the wealthy visitors at the back door of the opera.
Marie, the daughter of a Belgian laundress and tailor, was born in the poor 9e arrondissement of Paris, one of three sisters (Antoinette and Charlotte), on 7th June, 1865. She was named after her dead sister who had only lived 18 days. The mother and her daughters moved to a stone apartment building, Place Breda, in Rue Notre-Dame de Lorette (one of the most squallid districts of Paris) near Degas' studio at Rue Saint-Georges after the death of Marie's father. Marie and her sisters became students at the Paris Opera Ballet school and later performed in roles of extras with the company. By posing for artists, Marie and her sisters probably earned up to 6 or 10 francs per sitting. I read somewhere a long time ago that it was probable the girls' mother had actually 'sold' them to artists for sittings...
(Photo source) The first showing of The Little Dancer caused an outcry, not because the subject was a child, but because she was so unattractive. Jules Claretie reported in Le Temps that he found the wax figure "peculiarly disturbing". "The lecherous little snout on this barely pubescent young girl, this little flower of the gutter, is unforgettable," he wrote. Paul Mantz's response was similar: "With bestial effrontery she moves her face forward, or rather her little muzzle - and this word is completely correct because the little girl is the beginning of a rat" (reference to les petits rats de l'Opéra). He goes on:
"Why is she so ugly? Why is her forehead, half covered by her hair, marked already, like her lips, with a profoundly vicious character?"
The Little Dancer was not seen again publicly until April 1920.
In Germaine Greer's excellent article for the Guardian in January 2009 entitled 'Degas's dancers are studies in cruel reality. But don't go thinking he felt compassion for them' she writes: "Today's public is not likely to make a lecherous interest in the body of a child the fault of the child herself, if only because so few of us are the kind of bowler-hatted, cigar-smoking, clubbable gentlemen who prowled the backstage corridors of the Paris Opera in the 1880s. If the nude figure is disturbing, it is because the child is underdeveloped for her stated age, because her breasts are mere buds on her narrow ribcage, because her pelvis is shallow and unformed and her belly slack and protuberant, because her thighs are wasted and her knees almost rachitic. This is what passed by gas footlights for a sylph - an undernourished child for whom dancing was a one-way ticket to prostitution.
Degas is certainly responsible for stripping the figure of the adolescent dancer of cuteness, and we could argue that his intent is partly moral, but anyone who looks for compassion in the work will not find it. The visual language of compassion was unusable for any serious artist in the 1870s and 80s, because the public art of the period oozed sentiment. Pretty beggars and plump rosy little girlies with tears in their eyes were as often to be encountered then, as fluffy kittens are today. Degas dispensed with pathos as summarily as he dispensed with glazes. His surfaces get thinner and poorer, the pigment goes on drier and drier. Line becomes more and more important, burning through the bursts of aniline colour that begin to dominate in the later work, like the skull beneath the stage-lit skin.
The figure of the sexual predator is a constant in Degas's image-making. Portly gentlemen in solid black are forever watching the girls, in their dance classes, in the dressing rooms, in the wings, from the stalls. A monotype in the possession of the NGA shows a group of four top-hatted gentlemen towering over two tiny dancers they have cornered in a backstage corridor. Degas captures the cocky bravado of the little girls, who are looking to make the best of an inescapable situation.
When the work comes together, (...) it becomes apparent that Degas's detachment is beyond cruelty. He is like the painter in Zola's novel, L'Oeuvre, who cannot stop painting his wife's dead face because he is fascinated by the way the colour of her skin is changing. How you react to what Degas shows you is none of the artist's concern. There can be as little doubt that Degas used prostitutes as that he used laundresses and ironing ladies. He was aware of women as independent beings, and had more respect for women artists - for Cassatt, Morisot, and Valadon, for example - than any of his contemporaries, but they were not his subject. His subject, when it is not horses, is the interaction of gentlemen and labouring women, whether dancers, prostitutes or laundresses. Sex is always part of the relationship, but love has nothing to do with it.
Degas's brother René is said to have destroyed 70 pornographic sketches that were found at the time of the artist's death. One escaped and can be seen in this exhibition. Joris-Karl Huysmans was troubled by what he saw as "scorn and loathing" for women in Degas's work. It is undeniable that most of Degas's women are faceless and abject, foreshortened heaps of limbs and buttocks, but ultimately it is less insulting to women to show their bodies coarsened by privation and hard work, by age and ill health, than it is to show them forever delectable and young."
One of the commenters below the article writes: "Degas wanted to show the socialist reality of his time, as did most of impressionist group. Thus he chose les petit rats de lOpera to inform the viewer that from the stage ( a world of fantasy), the reality was poor kids scrabbling to make a living for themselves and their families. That was what was so distasteful to the art viewer at the time."
The contemporary reviewer Joris-Karl Huysmans called her a "terrible reality." The Little Dancer is a very poignant, deeply felt work in which this child of just fourteen, despite the difficult position in which she is placed, both physically and psychologically, struggles for a measure of dignity: her head is held high, though her arms and hands are uncomfortably stretched behind her back.
For forty years, the wax original stood in Degas' studio, then, after his death, his heirs decided to make several bronze casts of it. In these later versions, the models are completely bronze apart from the dancer's gauze tutu and silk ribbon. Less than thirty copies were made, and examples of them can now be seen in some of the world's most prestigious museums. Please see this lovely video from The Private Life of a Masterpiece on the rebirth of the Little Dancer.
According to Wikipedia, the original wax model was acquired by Paul Mellon in 1956. Beginning in 1985, Mr and Mrs Mellon gave the US National Gallery of Art in Washington DC 49 Degas waxes, 10 bronzes and 2 plasters, the largest group of original Degas sculptures, amongst them The Little Dancer. A version is also kept by the M.T. Abraham Center for the Visual Arts, and at times loaned out to other institutions. Others can be found at the London Tate, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the collection of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Clark Art Institute in Massachusettes and the Musée d'Orsay and the Louvre in Paris.
In February 2009, John Madejski sold one of them at auction. The bids at Sothebys Auction House ran up to £13.3 million before the hammer finally came down.
(Photo source) The sisters' story did not end quite so happily: Marie's sister, Antoinette, was thrown into prison for trying to steal 700 francs from one of her gentleman clients - no record of her remains after that. And the little dancer herself? Well, Marie was widely known as 'Degas's Model' and also for frequenting the Martyrs Tavern and the Rat Mort - both frequented by Degas and were notorious hang-outs for 'available' young women. She was arrested at some point for attempting to pickpocket one of her 'customers'. Poverty prevented Marie from finishing her training at the Paris Opéra. Her dance career ended at the age of seventeen, when she was fired for missing too many dance classes. It is supposed that she eventually ended up immersed in a life of petty crime and prostitution. How sad to think that her image is one of the most loved and valued in art history, and yet she herself was destined for such hardship and degradation. That her fate was cast into such oblivion only encourages the debate of The Little Dancer. We don't know if she married, had children or even lived to grow old... No record has ever been found.