Please welcome Cathy to the blog once again for her second historical fiction book – The Painted Girls which is available both in the USA and Canada right now! I can tell you if you haven’t read her first book which I fell in love with at the first few sentences, you should. Cathy is one of those rare talents where writing gets better and better like a fine aged wine…that’s if you drink wine! Here is a guest post she has done for me, enjoy!
When Edgar Degas unveiled Little Dancer Aged Fourteen in 1881, he showed the sculpture alongside his portrait of two teenage boys on trial in the criminal court. The Painted Girls tells the story of the young dancer who modeled for the sculpture and also that of the Emile Abadie and Michel Knobloch, the boys Degas drew in the prisoners’ box.
Art historians contend more than a shared exhibition links the artworks. They suggest in each Degas sought to imply the depravity of his subjects. What, I wondered, lay laid beneath such a claim?
Marie van Goethem, I would learn, modeled for Little Dancer. She was from a poverty-stricken family and was trained to enter the famous Paris Opéra Ballet. It was the dream of many a poor Parisian girl. The ballet offered a chance to find fame and fortune if she had talent and ambition, if she was able to attract the attentions of an admirer with clout enough to advance her career. Such liaisons were commonplace, and unfair though it was, blame fell squarely on the shoulders of the ballet girls. It was not surprising, then, that when the sculpture was unveiled, the public at once connected Little Dancer with a life of corruption and young girls for sale. Her face, they said, was “imprinted with the detestable promise of every vice.” Degas, it would seem, was successful in suggesting the child’s depravity.
Such an intention was easy enough to swallow when it came to the portrait of Abadie and Knobloch. “Scientific” findings of the day supported notions of innate criminality and particular facial features—low forehead, forward-thrusting jaw—that marked a person as having a tendency toward crime. Those features are incorporated into the portrait (and the sculpture, too). Even more telling, Degas titled the portrait “Criminal Physiognomies.”
What fascinated me most of all, though, as I researched the stories of Marie and the boys was the possibility the link between the artworks went beyond the shared exhibition and the suggestion of criminality. All three youths had inhabited the same underbelly of Paris, and I could not stop myself from imagining their paths had crossed, the ways in which such a meeting might have altered destinies. Yes, I wanted to tell both stories, but I wanted to intertwine their lives, too. And so on the pages of The Painted Girls, there is a fateful day when Marie’s older sister meets Abadie behind the Paris Opéra.
It certainly does make you think about this, doesn’t it?
Thank you so much Cathy for this, and stay tuned for my review of The Painted Girls.