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The Painted Girls


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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 toes, 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.

Veronique de Turenne is a Los Angeles–based journalist, essayist, and playwright. Her literary criticism appears on NPR and in major American newspapers.


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