Alana Mohamed | Longreads | April 2019 | 10 minutes (2,756 words)
Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, was a surprise best-seller. “Who was going to read a book about a Dutch painter?” Chevalier remembers wondering. But her fictional, highly compelling heroine, Griet, made for a popular window into Vermeer’s world. As the maid sent to work for Vermeer’s family in 17th century Delft, Griet elucidates many of the divisions of the time — between rich and poor, man and woman, and Catholic and Protestant. Chevalier said she was compelled to write the novel after wondering “what Vermeer did to her [the model] to make her look like that … I saw it as a portrait of a relationship rather than a portrait of a girl.” Readers praised Chevalier’s research, which took her to Amsterdam and the Hague while pregnant. “Chevalier’s writing skill and her knowledge of seventeenth-century Delft are such that she creates a world reminiscent of a Vermeer interior,” a brief New Yorker review reads. The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor were both similarly impressed with Chevalier’s world-building.
Some readers were, however, resistant to the idea that Griet, who in the novel possesses a keen artistic eye, would become an integral part of Vermeer’s work. In its review, Publisher’s Weekly claimed these details “demands one stretch of the reader’s imagination,” and “threaten to rob the novel of its credibility.” In 2017, Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel rankled feathers in the historical literature community when she criticized the proclivity of modern writers to empower their historical subjects in such a way. She asked, “If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?” The question is reductive and misleads, but does point to the impossibility of writing about women forgotten by history as just themselves. Like Griet, they become conduits by which we dissect their cultures.
Today, uncovering women’s lives has become a mainstream project. The Paris Review has started a “Feminize Your Canon” series dedicated to underappreciated women writers. The New York Times’ “Overlooked” series is a retrograde edit of its obituary section, long dominated by white men. Both projects seek to increase the visibility of women who have long been rendered invisible by historical ambivalence. However, these are women who accomplished the extraordinary, women who may have been waylaid from greatness. As the Telegraph also notes, for Chevalier, “Research failed to make good the gaps Chevalier’s imagination was already painting in like a picture restorer.”
Camille Laurens’ Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas’ Masterpiece shares its name with the titular masterpiece, a wax sculpture of a young ballerina at rest with her chin defiantly in the air. This young girl is a source of great intrigue and torture for Laurens, who sets out to learn what she can about her. “What is still missing, what I have not found — I who seek to know everything about her — is something that is neither moral nor philosophic or religious, or rather that is something that is all those things together. Beyond the physical, what is missing is her soul.” It is a titillating work of non-fiction that stretches the boundaries of what a biography can be, using imagination and conjecture to fill in what would otherwise be a blank page.
The little dancer’s name was Marie Geneviève van Goethem, born to poor Belgian parents who had fled to Paris. Her mother, also Marie, was a laundress. Marie Geneviève was the middle child. Her older sister would run into trouble with the law before dying alone, while her younger sister would find success as a dance instructor. All three danced at the Paris Opera from a young age — not the lofty goal of dedicated ingénues, but a grueling labor meant unofficially to find poor young girls rich caretakers. Marie Geneviève and her older sister, Antoinette, posed for Degas, and many other artists, as a means to make money. Marie would eventually be kicked out of the opera for all the classes she missed while posing for artists.
As a dancer, Marie inhabited a curious space in Parisian society. The dancers, commonly referred to as “little rats” were a kind of Parisian celebrity, and Marie’s goings-on were even written about in gossip columns. Reportedly, she frequented cafes. “Objects of admiration and opprobrium, attraction and repellence, the ‘young ladies of the Opera’ excited interest mostly for their sexual indiscretions and their romantic entanglements,” Laurens writes. These girls were often painted as threats to bourgeois men who could infect them with venereal disease or steal their money, bringing ruin to entire families. Cheap novels were written about their fictitious exploits, and author Emile Zola’s Nana might be considered an elevated entry in the genre.
Celebrity, or visibility, is not always power.
As Laurens notes, history has often failed to record the identities of sitting models in works of art, especially women, often leading to centuries of speculation after the fact. Aristocratic women are sometimes on the record, but that’s rarely so with poor young girls like Marie. Meanwhile, feminist studies of art history have understandably focused on studying the contributions of women artists more so than sitters. When Judy Chicago created her biomorphic series “Dinner Party”in 1979, she was concerned primarily with women leaders, artists and thinkers. In the Guardian, Chicago describes eagerly waiting for the final class of a course she was taking in college, when the well-known historian who was her instructor promised to discuss women’s contributions, only to announce, “Women’s contributions; they made none.” It’s a startling assessment to most in this post-women’s studies age, but so too for a young woman in the 1960s with big aspirations. “The truth is that for centuries women have struggled to be heard, writing books, making art and music and challenging the many restrictions on women’s lives. But their achievements have been repeatedly written out of history,” Chicago says in her essay.
In her seminal essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists,” Linda Nochlin laments, “Always a model but never an artist might well have served as the motto of the seriously aspiring young woman in the arts of the 19th century.” She may have been thinking of Camille Claudel or Suzanne Valadon when she wrote that. Claudel was a French sculptor whose work gained new attention in the 1980s after several biographies were published. Before that, history primarily painted her as a model and lover of Rodin’s. Valadon was a French painter, but she was also well-known as a model who sat for Renoir, Toulouse-Lautec, and others. Both were celebrated in their time for their artistic output, but were later largely remembered as muses to their male counterparts.
Nochlin’s essay attributes women artists’ lack of recognition to the circumstances of their lives, which made it materially impossible for them to achieve greatness. In The Obstacle Race, a book-length response to Nochlin’s essay, the second-wave feminist Germaine Greer, like Judy Chicago, argues instead that women were producing great art, just not in way that the culture at large could, or would, document. That’s because women artists often chose, or were compelled, to work on projects closely with men. Throughout much of history, a woman artist’s work would be signed in her husband’s or father’s name. And when a woman artist, acting alone, has managed to create an artwork that is remarkable and undeniably influential, even still the (until recently, mainly) men who cite and document and delineate such things have preferred not to remember it, favoring some lover or friend of hers as the true artist instead. Siri Hustvedt recently pointed out in an article for the Guardian that critics, catalogs, and history books continue to refuse to acknowledge that Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, not Marcel Duchamp, is the real creator of Fountain, a urinal signed “R Mutt” that was famously rejected by the American Society of Independent Artists in 1917, prompting Duchamp, a member of the board, to resign in protest. After Freytag-Loringhoven died, Duchamp began to take credit for Fountain. Duchamps’s proximity to the work was enough for him to assume that credit. Freytag-Loringhoven’s death was enough for her to lose it.
Marie was an artist — a dancer — but I can’t tell you how she felt about dancing, or even how she danced. If Marie and her cohort were often gossiped about, they were rarely heard from. “As Renoir put it crudely, a work shouldn’t ‘stink of the model,’” Laurens writes. The models were meant only to be looked at. The written record offers little insight into Marie’s interior life. Little rats did not know how to read or write. In fact, Laurens quotes writer Theophile Gautier, who wrote a short 1841 text on Parisian dancers titled “Le Rat,” as saying that young girls like Marie “would do better to write with their feet, which are more highly trained and more adept than their hands.” They trained first at school, from as young as six years old, and made their stage debuts around thirteen or fourteen years old. Their entire lives were spent scraping together meals and attention, all in perfect form.
Laurens’ dependence on Gautier’s and other men’s documents to reconstruct Marie’s life recalls the tension between Marie the performer, meant to titillate the bourgeoisie, and Marie the girl, who was meant to operate at the margins. It’s a reminder that celebrity, or visibility, is not always power. When Sally Wen Mao was researching Afong Moy, the Chinese woman who Nathaniel and Frederick Carne exhibited as a special attraction for US audiences, for her newest poetry collection, Oculus, she noted, “Every record of Afong Moy is from the perspective of a white person looking at her. This dynamic interests me: when researching, I was keenly aware of a white male gaze that controls the image of these women, in essence subduing their voices and their stories.” But Laurens parses through these documents and is able to construct believable hypotheticals and near-certain scenarios “[Marie] probably never visited the sculpture during the exhibit’s three-week run on the boulevard des Capucines, not far from the Paris Opera. One or another of the ruffians and grisettes she associated with, however, may have passed along the news in mocking tones: ‘Everyone is running off to admire you. Are you really the new Mona Lisa?’”
Little Dancer is mostly a factual affair, but these moments of wonder, fiction and supposition underscore the seductive nature of the unnamed woman in art. There is something torturous about a well-known face that insists on anonymity. It has been the unofficial position of women in art for years, and has often opened women up to a series of projections.
When John Berger released Ways of Seeing in 1972, he dedicated an entire episode to the nude in art, a figure that almost always involved a passive, unclothed woman lying supine for the gaze of a male viewer. He takes care to differentiate between the nude and nakedness: “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself.” It could be said that historical novels of these silent subjects function similarly to the nude. The anonymous sitters of these artistic creations are rendered unrecognizable twice over, as with little historical record, they become reinterpreted first by the artist and then by the author.
It is an injustice, to imagine people with so much more money and status and time and luxury calling you ugly — when it’s not even your face, really!
Marie’s debut at the Salon des Indépendants in April 1881 is indicative of this transformation. Laurens notes that the fact that Degas dressed his statue at all was cause for shock at the exhibition. Nude women were normal, but to have one dressed implied its inverse — nakedness! It was a scandalous choice for the bourgeois viewers. “She’ll do better as a rat at the Opera than as a pussy at the bordello,” one viewer said. “Does there truly exist an artist’s model this horrid, this repulsive?” Another journalist wondered. In fact, this was an apt question.
Degas, with his interest in phrenology (the pseudoscience of using cranium measurements to determine a person’s behavior and classify them as inferior), had reshaped Marie’s face so that it matched popular notion of the criminal. He gave her “a sloping forehead, protruding jaw, prominent cheekbones and thick hair.” Laurens puzzles over this more than the average museum catalog, which tends to assert that Degas was showing a sort of solidarity with the working class. Laurens wonders, was Degas dismissing the unsavory practices of the Paris Opera House? Condemning the young girl? Revealing society’s hypocrisy? After all, the very same spectators quick to call Marie ugly usually had subscriptions to the Opera House, just to have their pick of young, teenage girls. Throughout her inquiry, Laurens teases out ideas of girlhood, innocence, and class. She notes that Marie also posed for a statuette called The Schoolgirl, which wasn’t modeled beside Little Dancer, though it was made around the same time. “Here is what Marie might have become if economic necessity and social inequality had not kept her from it, although stamped with the same supposedly criminal features: a charming schoolgirl.”
In an antidote to these manipulations, Laurens compels you to refocus on Marie. It is an injustice, to imagine people with so much more money and status and time and luxury calling you ugly — when it’s not even your face, really! As Barthes aptly put it, “Representations are formations, but they are also deformations.” The loss of control over her own visage a model suffers is, perhaps, what makes her less compelling to earlier waves of feminist reclamation, but more compelling to the casual viewer. Women like Suzanne Valadon, for example, gained notoriety for the tales they told about themselves. Valadon’s fictions about running away to the circus, or losing her virginity were as much of fascination to some as her artistic accomplishments.
It’s a partly intrusive gaze, to pry into the lives of the unknown. When Berger spoke of the nude, he also spoke of power, of the ways important men used the nudes painted on ceilings or hanging from walls to comfort themselves. He says, “When one of them felt he had been outwitted, he looked up for consolation. What he saw reminded him that he was a man.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, the glimpses into women’s’ lives that historical narratives offer us carry a sense of illicitness that make us feel both powerful and ashamed. We’ve contributed, in however small a part, to the erasure of these women’s lives, and now we peek over the fence of history in the hopes that they will lay themselves bare. The hunger — especially in women — is justifiable, but it also savages the very subjects we wish to honor.
Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen’s last chapter includes a highly personal account of Laurens’ research for the book. Throughout the first half, we are invited to use Marie as a way to explore poverty, class, Parisian entertainment, Degas’s attitude towards women, the contours of the Impressionist Movement. There was little to be said of Marie herself, primarily because there was little paper trail of Marie herself. I, as a ravenous voyeur, had hoped to learn what Marie thought of Degas, or what she did in her spare time. These are the wrong questions to ask of this book, but they are ones Laurens considers herself. “Was Marie wordly-wise … Or was she sweet and submissive, used to obeying? … Was she embarrassed to stand naked before this stern man, alone with him in a jumble of easels, frames, armatures, and cupboards filled with artworks?” It seems clear she had hoped to find answers. She’s disappointed she could not.
“I wanted to be honest in my dealing with this tiny life, not settle for what everyone was saying about it,” Laurens decides as she readies herself to dive in to several archives to sniff out the truth of Marie’s birthday and year of death. She is rewarded with a string of discoveries that, knitted together, reveal the ripple effect Degas’ sculpture would have on one little rat’s life. Marie’s modeling career, court and death documents show, might have led to family ruin. “Did she think she would have a better life as a model — less pain and more money? Did she quickly realize her error? And where was Degas in all this?” Laurens asks as various records piece together Marie’s life, always transparent in her modes of investigation. These questions have no answer but they do confront the impossibility of Laurens’ project. There is no soul to be found in the archives, but Laurens, like a medium — or a sculptor — is able to make a vessel for one, if only it could appear.
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Alana Mohamed is a writer and librarian from Queens, NY.
Editor: Dana Snitzky