It was from the grim and blood-soaked wreckage of post–World War I Europe that historians looked back and named the preceding decades La Belle Époque. A thirty-year span of peace and economic stability, art, and science had flourished, even as the second half of the Industrial Revolution set the scene for the era’s sudden and brutal end. Artists and intellectuals like Émile Zola, Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie, and Sarah Bernhardt helped to upend the status quo. With progress and optimism elevated to a form of faith, movements like Impressionism, Postimpressionism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau found fertile ground.
This is the world author Cathy Marie Buchanan puts on canvas in her second novel, The Painted Girls. A clear-eyed and heartfelt accounting of the seamy side of that gilded age, Buchanan gives voice to the historic figure of Marie van Goethem, one of the ballet girls who obsessed painter Edgar Degas.
It’s 1878 when we meet Marie, whose father, a tailor, has just passed away. Her mother, a laundress whose love of absinthe trumps her concern for her three daughters, has fallen behind on the rent for their Montmartre tenement. Marie’s older sister, Antoinette, is no help. Hot-tempered and difficult, she has lost her place as a paid dancer in the Paris Opera ballet. The burden of earning a living thus falls to Marie.
At thirteen, Marie is several years too old to become one of the “petit rats” of the Opera, the lowest rung of the strictly regimented training program. Still, driven by desperation, she auditions and is accepted into the company. The wages she brings in are meager, and the family remains impoverished. Though the accepted way for dancers to bolster their incomes is to accept the favors of certain male patrons, season ticket holders known as abonnes, Marie resists that path. When Monsieur Degas asks Marie to model for his paintings, she agrees. With her graceful back and her loose-hipped stance, she soon becomes his muse.
As Marie earns a living, Buchanan gives her readers an education. While posing for Degas, Marie sees “…a drawing of a ballet girl sitting slumped on a bench. There is no more to the picture than a few lines of charcoal, a few dashes of pastel, but the exhaustion of the girls is there, in the ribs heaving with each breath, the late night and bellowing father of the evening before, also the long hours at the barre, striving to balance a second longer or land a little softer, the aching thighs rolling open even at rest.”
Later, once we’ve learned just how precarious the lives of the Opera’s lower-ranked dancers are and how slim their chances of becoming stars, Marie sees the truth of her status in another of Degas’s paintings. In this one, “…a dancer bends forward at the hips to straighten her stockings; and another, with a shock of red hair and a face turned to the floor, looks like she is stretching out her tows, but it is impossible to know because a good half of her foot is chopped off, and this time, the top of her head, too. Behind these dancers, fluffing the tarlatan of her daughter’s skirt is the mother, with the puffy face of an old concierge, and her friend, rough with her raw nose and plume of feathers bristling from her hat. These girls, Monsieur Degas is saying, do not be tricked by the grace of their backs. These girls are of common stock.”
Antoinette, meanwhile, has found work as a day player in Zola’s drama L’Assommoir, about a washer woman whose low place dooms her to failure. There, Antoinette meets and falls for Émile Abadie, also a historic figure. With his narrow, sloping forehead and wide, simian jaw, Abadie’s face matches the facial characteristics for a criminal, according to a popular scientific theory of the day. True to history, Antoinette’s lover is charged with and convicted or murder. As she works to clear Abadie, Antoinette draws Marie deep into a sordid scandal.
Little is known about the real lives of the van Goethem sisters. Antoinette was, indeed, dismissed from the Opera, but her affair with Abadie is pure invention. Charlotte’s eventual career with the Opera spanned decades. And though Degas made scores of studies of Marie and then immortalized her in Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, the only sculpture he ever exhibited, nothing more is known about the model. It’s only through Buchanan’s words that the sisters become real. Her vision of La Belle Époque, like that of the painter she portrays, brings the soul and sacrifice of the ballet girls to life.