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The Painted Girls book cover

The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan

a book review by Dani Henke

Degas ballerina The Little Dancer

"No social being is less protected than the Young Parisian girl - by laws, regulations, and social customs." -Le Figaro, 1880.  So begins Cathy Marie Buchanan's novel The Painted Girls, a zeitgeist for La Belle Epoque Paris. 

The story is told in alternating chapters captured through the eyes of Marie van Goethem and her older sister, Antoinette van Goethem.  Marie and Antoinette, two of the surviving daughters of a laundress and a late tailor grow up in The Breda, a squalid district of Paris known for its poverty and prostitution. Antoinette, the oldest, dances as an extra at The Paris Opera where she brings her younger sisters to tryout for coveted spots in the corps de ballet. The opera house is where the sisters encounter the men that will forever change their lives. 

Antoinette accepts an invitation from a young brute named Emile Abadie to join him for a drink, beginning the thread of a young and tortured romance which weaves itself into the novel.  Antoinette is a loving older sister, but also a young girl hardened by life, defensive and quick to lie even if it's just for the sake of lying. She falls for this tall, heavy-browed boy with haystack hair, and it's Emile who leads Antoinette away from her sisters and into the Parisian underbelly.

Marie, on the other hand,  is singled out of the Petite Rats, the preadolescent ballet students, by Monsieur Degas, a quiet artist who captures the graceful girls behind the scenes.  Marie is not the best technical dancer but is determined to be elevated to the corps de ballet, spending hours practicing, even taking extra lessons with money she earns from her job at the bakery.  She works sunup to sundown so we can't be surprised when this young fragile girls of fourteen begins to crumble under the weight of such a life.

In the first chapter of the novel, Buchanan inserts an article from Le Figaro about Cesare Lombroso, Italian Criminologist.  Lombroso, founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology, stated in his theory of anthropological criminology that criminality was inherited and that someone "born criminal" could be identified by physical defects. These defects were considered to be representative of a primitive type of man, reminiscent of apes or primates. Lombroso even stated that specific criminals, such as thieves, rapists and murderers could be distinguished by specific characteristics.

This is where things really get interesting. Marie reads this article in the opening of the book and worries about her own criminal destiny.  She has the protruding jaw and large forehead the article assures her will seal her fate as a delinquent but it isn't until Degas singles her out as a model that the connection between Lombroso's theories and Marie's worries solidifies. Degas' passion for phrenology seems to be what draws his eye to Marie van Goethem. The young girl modeled for the artist from 1878 to 1881.  A number of recognizable works depict Marie; Dancer with Fan, Dancing Lesson, and Dancer Resting.  The most famous work, however, is Little Dancer Aged 14.

When the sculpture was revealed at The Sixth Exposition of the Independent Artists in 1881 it met mixed reviews.  Deemed the only truly modern attempt at sculpture in one Parisian newspaper, the majority were shocked by the piece, comparing the dancer to a monkey and an Aztec and referred to her as a "flower of precocious depravity" with a face "marked by the hateful promise of every vice" and "bearing the signs of a profoundly heinous character."  She looked like a medical specimen, they claimed, partially because Degas exhibited the sculpture inside a glass case. (Coincidently, a reproduction of this sculpture rests by the register at Mitchell's Book Corner.  I never noticed it until after reading this book.)

Antoinette's story is tangled in criminality as well.  Her lover, Emile Abadie, becomes another subject of Degas during his murder trial.  The young man, charged with murder, unknowingly poses for Degas' piece, Criminal Physiognomies. A review of the work states, "Only a keen observer could portray with such singular physiological sureness the animal foreheads and jaws, kindle the flickering glimmers in the dead eyes, render the yellow-green flesh on which is imprinted all the bruises, all the stains of vice." Hoping that Abadie will escape the guillotine in exchange for deportation to New Caledonia, Antoinette begins hoarding money for her own passage to the distant land, earning it any way "a flower of the gutter" can.

This novel is so heavily impregnated with historical facts, both heartbreaking and sympathetic.  Reading the epilogue, I was shocked to find so many of the events in the book to have taken place and for so many characters to be real. Obviously, being a novel, liberties were taken but Buchanan largely keeps with the known facts of the van Goethem sisters' lives and with the trials of Emile Abadie. It's a great read for lovers of historical fiction, mystery, dance and art. I'd compare it as a more accessible Strapless, a wonderful non-fiction read about John Singer Sargent and Virginie Gautreau, the model for his controversial work, Portrait of Madame X.  Lighter than non-fiction but containing truths art in Parisian society and the women who modeled for it, I give this book my full approval.

*To view Degas works mentioned in the novel visit the author's website.

The Painted Girls may be purchased at Mitchell's Book Corner, Nantucket Bookworks or here.