The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

painted girlsThe Painted Girls takes readers into the world of Edgar Degas, famous for his paintings of ballet dancers in 19th-century France. One of his models was Marie Van Goethem, and the book is based on her life and the lives of her family. As the novel opens in the late 1870s, Marie is thirteen years old. Her father has died. Her mother, a laundress, has found solace in drink and contributes little to the care of her three daughters, who must, for the most part, fend for themselves.

Girls have limited options: studying ballet (students in the ballet school receive a small salary), performing in ballets or plays, working at difficult, menial jobs, becoming prostitutes, serving as artists’ models, and stealing. The lucky few find careers as seamstresses, milliners, or ballet stars.
Marie enters ballet school, earns money as a model for Degas’ paintings and for his famous statue, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” and receives financial assistance from a man who expects sexual favors in return. Her older sister, Antoinette, tries to care for her younger sisters as well as for herself. Charlotte, the girls’ younger sister, shows great promise in ballet.

Another plot line involves some young men accused of murder. While newspapers and court records of the time give no indication that these men knew the Van Goethem sisters, the novel’s plot shows Antoinette’s falling in love with one of these men.
The book, depicting a world which was extremely difficult and degrading for poor girls and women struggling to survive, gives a new perspective on Degas’ art. I became caught up in the characters’ lives, hoping for happy endings for them!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

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