Marie Van Goethem

November 9, 2010

For this character I was inspired by one of my favorite artist, Edgar Degas. For many years has his coloring, technique and study of the body been very intriguing to me. Following my photos is a short story of Marie Van Goethem, the young lady behind my workings and also many of Degas’.

Model Dana Sorensen brought beautiful emotion to this shoot. Fabulous job!

Perhaps you’ve seen her.

A ribbon tied loosely around her braid. Shoulders back, arms taut and fingers tightly interlaced behind her. Lanky legs, knobby knees. Tired, lilting eyes. Tattered gauze tutu. And chin lifted in irresolute defiance.

Edgar Degas’ “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen” is one of the most recognizable works of modern art in the world. Looking at her, some will see a teenager who, though a little awkward, has a quiet beauty and authenticity. Others envisage an ugly, depraved street urchin.

For more than a century, her figure has been scrutinized, unleashing vicious debates over issues of female beauty and sexuality. She was center stage, too, for part of an artistic revolution.

As part of the ongoing wrangling over the girl’s identity, and what she represents, art historians in more recent years have begun to ask: Who was she?

A girl by the name of Marie Van Goethem was the real “little dancer,” a frequent model for the French painter and occasional sculptor.

Her story, as it has come together, is fragmented and quite grim.

MARIE VAN GOETHEM’S STORY

Born poor in Paris

Marie Genevieve Van Goethem was born June 7, 1865, to Belgian parents, a father who was a tailor and a mother who had no profession. The girl was given the name of her dead sister, who died after 18 days of life the prior year.

The Van Goethems settled in Paris, a place then quickened by a new sense of the modern, straddling its pre-industrial and post-industrial self.

The onset of modernism brought with it a new popular culture, too. Bustling streets, sidewalk cafes, singers and dancers, enticing shops – these were all signs of a new pace of life, a new hunger for pleasure and entertainment.

The family lived in Paris’ 9th Arrondissement, a diverse stew of wealthy and poor, day laborers and prostitutes, brothels and merchants. The Breda district where Marie was born was one of the most squalid pockets.

Marie became a student at the Paris Opera dance school and later performed in opera house ballet performances. Her two sisters, Antoinette and Charlotte, were also dancers.

At some point when the girls were still young, Mr. Van Goethem died, leaving his wife and daughters to fend for themselves. Mrs. Van Goethem became a laundress, a common job for dancers’ mothers.

The widow Van Goethem and her girls moved into a seven-story stone building facing the street, not far from Degas’ studio. It had “one dark staircase,” two shops at street level, a paint shop, a beer seller, an innkeeper, a hairdresser and laundresses.

The world within a world of impoverished Parisians of that time: “But mixed up with the lofty brand-new buildings there were still plenty of rickety old houses; between facades of carved masonry yawned black holes, gaping kennels exposing their wretched windows. Coming up through the rising tide of luxury the destitution of the slums thrust itself into view.”

Dance as a fine art had fallen to the realm of mild musical entertainments that attracted large, less discriminating crowds. Dancers were paid modest wages, and a little extra per-performance money. It was generally more than other child laborers earned.

Degas frequented the ballet performances at the Paris Opera House, where Marie danced roles of extras such as peasants and slaves. He often slipped backstage with other prominent figures of the day.

His relationships with women are largely unknown. Degas’ mother died when he was 13, he never married and no one can say whether he had mistresses or not.

Each of the trio of girls modeled for Degas, as did a host of others. The artist created some of the first behind-the scenes images of dancers, by far his favorite subject.

Since the 1870s, Degas had been investigating the mechanics of human motion, which some say caused a psychological distance from his subjects, both in the studio and in his art. He dictated positions to the dancers who, for four hours of holding a pose, would probably be paid between 6 and 10 francs (a pound of meat cost a franc or

two).

He did not work quickly, unlike many of his Impressionist contemporaries, and demanded a great deal of time and perseverance from his models. At some point, the police came around, asking questions about the frequent comings and goings of the young girls.

Degas attended the ballet’s auditions and competitions, with, some say, a paternal interest, advocating for one dancer or another.

The dancer’s hard work and the cost to her body are present in her muscular form and her stance. She is an individual, tired and tense, not a type.

Young Marie became known as Degas’ model. The local newspapers, which included a line or two about each dancer when there was a performance, described just Marie as an “artist’s model” for a time.

Marie and her sister Antoinette were also noted in the papers for frequenting the Martyrs Tavern and the Rat Mort, both frequented by Degas and known hangouts for young and available women. The girls had become prostitutes. The lower- and middle-class women who took up the sex trade were both reviled and desired in a way that’s partly unfamiliar today.

Fear that their vulgarities would infiltrate the new modern culture was common. Still, they were also among the most independent, and sometimes educated, women of their time. For a few, prostitution was a way to climb up the social ladder.

For the van Goethem girls, though, it was not.

Antoinette was thrown in jail for trying to steal 700 francs from one of her gents and seems to disappear from all record after that. Marie was arrested, too, for trying to pickpocket one of her customers.

Marie was eventually sacked, dismissed from the opera ballet. Dancers were usually fired for things such as performance mistakes, absences and tardiness.

After that, nothing is known about Marie. That her fate was cast into oblivion only accentuates the debate over the meaning of “Little Dancer.”

The end to Marie’s story might have affirmed one point of view or another, but we don’t know whether she married, had children or even grew to old age. No record has been found.

http://www.internationalarts.org/degas_exhibition/doc/Degas%20Milw%20Journal%20Sentinel%20Schumacher%20021205.pdf

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4 Responses to “Marie Van Goethem”

  1. lilibet Says:

    This is amazingly beyond beautiful. Its like you captured a moment in time now lost to us.

  2. Cara Says:

    How do you know what her sisters were named or if they became prostitutes? Is this based off “Marie, Dancing” or actual facts? 🙂


    • I just researched a bit on her story. I suppose maybe what I got is possibly a tale but its hard to say. I think the whole idea of it either way is just a reflection of the situations and unfortunate places that many young girls ended up at that time.


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