The Painted Girls: Degas and the Dancers

painted girls

If you like historical art fiction, it doesn’t get much better than The Painted Girls, Cathy Buchanan’s new novel about the young ballerinas Degas used to paint and sculpt. Set in the seedy side streets of Belle Epoque Paris, this book tells the desperate story of three sisters who must find their way to survive in the dark world of the Paris demimonde.

The Painted Girls is based on the true story of the van Goethem sisters who danced at the Paris Opéra in the late 1870s and early 1880s. They lived on the slopes of Montmartre on rue de Douai, and after their father died, they had to scrounge for a living as best they could.

Although they were not classic beauties, the van Goethem sisters were talented enough to earn a place among the other novices, the “Petit-Rats” of the Paris ballet. But they still had to supplement their meager earnings with grueling jobs as laundry women or early morning bread makers. Soon, the younger sister Marie had a better opportunity.

The Paris Opéra

The Opéra Garnier

Inside the Opéra Garnier

Inside the Opéra Garnier

A regular at the opéra, Edgar Degas noticed skinny young Marie, the middle van Goethem sister, and asked her to model for him. She was honored to accept and relieved to earn extra money for the family. She was thrilled at the prospect of seeing her likeness at the Fifth and Sixth Impressionist Exhibits in 1880 and 1881.


Little Dancer Age 14, Wax sculpture by Edgar Degas.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C., COLLECTION OF MR. AND MRS. PAUL MELLON. Bronze copies were made after Degas’ death, including the one at the Musé d’Orsay in Paris.

The modeling scenes are some of my favorites in the book. Degas’ studio on rue Fontaine was just around the corner from Marie’s home in the 9th arrondissement. It is in that studio, overflowing with canvases, paints and pastels, that Degas began the sketches for Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, as well as numerous charcoal and pastel sketches of young Marie.

Cathy Buchanan’s website contains images of all of the artwork mentioned in the book. You can click on an image and read a related quote from the book. It’s just wonderful.

But there’s so much more to The Painted Girls than pleasant little scenes in Degas’ art studio. In fact, there is very a dark side to the van Goethem sisters’ lives. The oldest sister Antoinette gets involved with a violent young man of the streets, and Marie is singled out by one of the wealthy older patrons of the Opéra known as abonnées. The reader knows exactly where Marie’s relationship with Monsiuer Lefebvre is heading, that such gifts and favors are never bestowed without a price.

The sisters’ fall from innocence is tragic but not utterly without hope. In one particularly moving scene, young Marie is in despair, and raises a timeless question:

I want to put my face in my hands, to howl, for me, for Antoinette, for all the women of Paris, for the burden of having what men desire, for the heaviness of knowing it is ours to give, that with our flesh we make our way in the world. For there is a cost. . . . Would they say there is no cost, not so long as a girl takes no more than what a man decides her flesh is worth?

Both sisters make troubling choices, and find themselves even more deeply involved in the demimonde of Paris. When Antoinette’s love interest is arrested and accused of murder, the sisters’ conflicting loyalties nearly tear them apart. Can their family repair the damage and find a way to survive the poor, dangerous streets of Paris, without having to trade what men desire?

It’s an excellent read, although some might find the story drags a little during the criminal trials of Antoinette’s love interest, which could have been condensed down to one trial instead of two. However, that minor flaw still shouldn’t discourage you from seeking out and thoroughly enjoying this otherwise riveting book.

And when you’re done with the book, go back and enjoy more Cathy Buchanan’s website where she has also posted photos from her Paris research trip. I couldn’t create a better literary tour myself!

The Read: The Painted Girls, Highly recommended.

The Paris Tour: Take the Palais Garnier tour, a must-see in Paris. You can make an  Unaccompanied Visit nearly every day, or an English Guided Tour available three days per week. If you’re really lucky, you might be able to catch a ballet performance. Check out their 2012-13 schedule here. Then follow up with a visit to the Musée d’Orsay, where you can see one of the copies of Young Dancer, Age Fourteen, as well as one of my favorites, The Ballet Class. If you have the time to stroll through lower Montmartre, catch the Métro line 2 to the Blanche stop or line 12 to the Pigalle stop and browse through the van Goetham sisters’ old neighborhood.

van Goetham Home: 35 rue de Douai

Degas studio: rue Pierre Fontaine

Degas home: 6 boulevard Clichy

The plaque at the last home of Degas, 6 boulevard Clichy, Paris

The plaque at the last home of Degas, 6 boulevard Clichy, Paris


The last home of Edgard Degas from 1912-1917.

Sacré Bleu: A Comedy D’Art

Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore (Harper Collins, April 2012) reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in Midnight in Paris, when Adrien Brody nails it as Salvador Dali  (“Rhinocéros!”). Like Midnight in Paris, Sacré Bleu is a smart artsy romp through the bohemian past of Paris.

In Sacré Bleu, Moore turns the clock back even further to the age of the Impressionists, he adds a little black magic, a lot of bawdy humor and a bit of bizarre mystery — and serves up an outrageously playful historical comedy (truly, “A Comedy D’Art”).

There are no fussy painters in long white beards and frock coats here. This is an irreverent mystery with a sexy muse named Bleu and her partner-in-crime, “The Colorman,” whose magical blue paint works a devilish spell on the young French Impressionists, including Manet, Renoir, Pissaro, Van Gogh, Monet, Morrisot, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Set in Paris from 1863, the year of the Salon des Refusées, to 1891, a year after Van Gogh’s death, this book stirs up big trouble for each of the Impressionists. Bleu arrives and inhabits the bodies of the artists’ favorite muses, from Manet’s Victorine in Dejeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia to Monet’s first wife Camille, to Renoir’s Margot in Bal du moulin de la Galette. Each painter is seduced to use more magical blue paint, which just happens to be Bleu’s and The Colorman’s lifeblood.

Ever wonder why so many of the Impressionists and their muses died so young? Did you ever question the story about Van Gogh’s supposed suicide, in which he shot himself with his own gun at an impossible angle and then hiked a mile up a country road to get help? And why did Monet paint a blue-tinged portrait his wife on her deathbed? Let’s just say that Bleu and The Colorman know the truth.

A fictional young painter named Lucien Lessard carries the story. Working in the family’s boulangerie on the butte de Montmarte, he becomes the story’s Forrest Gump: he’s a young rat catcher during the Siege of Paris in 1870, he helps Renoir carry his large canvas of Bal du moulin de la Galette to his studio in 1876 (“Oh la la, the wind. We had to pick leaves and pine needles out of the paint every week.”), he was Monet’s assistant at the Gare Saint Lazare in 1877, he runs around the bars and brothels of Pigale with Toulouse-Lautrec. He sees it all.

Lucien comes of age, becomes a painter, and falls under the spell of his own little muse. Although Juliette is hard to resist, Lucien pieces together the various blue clues. He and his studio-mate Toulouse-Lautrec chase Bleu and the Colorman through the cobblestone streets and rat-filled catacombs of Paris. They discover a cache of mysterious blue canvases in the limestone caves and encounter even more death-defying magic.

It’s a good story, but trying to make sense of each twist and turn of the time-jumping plot can be a little confusing. Just go with it – don’t sweat the details or the timeline and just enjoy the ride. After all, you’re on the Christopher Moore L’Express.

Highly recommended.

*  *  *  *

If you live in Paris or if you’re planning a visit soon, I recommend that you pair than this book with a trip up to Montmartre. You might want to pick up Paris by the Plaque, an excellent guidebook to the history and sights of Montmartre. Paris Walks offers an English-speaking group walking tour every week, but if you’d like an in-depth personal guide I also recommend Pamela Grant at Paris Perspectives. If you’re just an armchair traveler, Christopher Moore has already created a Paris photo guide to some of the scenes from the book, which you can enjoy here (Chapter One – Auvers sur Oise) and here (Chapter Two – Montmartre, Pigale).

Before you start thinking about following in Christopher Moore’s footsteps, you should really pick up an early copy of the book. The first edition of the book will images of the paintings and prints in full color. Subsequent editions will just be in black and white. I’m just saying, you might want to click here to order yours now.

A Day with Renoir

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, Renoir (1876), Musee D'Orsay

No matter how many times I go to the D’Orsay, this painting makes me stop and gawk. I just saw it again recently with my husband in tow. He encourages my painting and puts up with my “I-wish-I-could-do-that” kind of commentary. Standing in front of Dance at le Moulin de la Galette, I was awash in admiration: “look at the pink dapples of light on her dress!”

I forget, until I see the real thing and get to admire the brush strokes up close, how many colors Renoir uses for sunlight, and how effortless he makes it look. Was the light really reflecting pink that day, or was he just playing with his palette? My own art teachers are always urging me to see the light as it truly is, and not what my brain thinks it is. There is color all around us and we don’t even know it. There is purple in a tree trunk, pink in a skirt, blue under a chin. And Renoir seems to know this best of all.

So I’ve been thinking of Renoir lately, with spring in all of its soft pastel colors breaking out in Paris. I decided to go visit the very place where Renoir painted this scene back in 1876, at the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre. The windmill was relocated from the original site further up the hill where the real dance hall was located. The Moulin de la Galette is now a restaurant at 83 rue Lepic, with a lovely quiet outdoor terrace and an English menu board.

Renoir painted en plein air at the Moulin de la Galette on Sundays, when he had a little help from his his friends. Because it would be impossible to capture real people who were so busy moving and dancing, he asked his friends pose for him in small groups. Renoir had to drag the extra large canvas back and forth to his studio, which was located up the hill and a couple of blocks away from Moulin de la Galette. He had to grapple with the wet canvas – a future masterpiece – in the heavy winds on the butte.

Renoir’s former studio is now Musee de Montmartre, 12-14 rue Cortot in Montmartre. The museum has a beautiful outdoor garden and courtyard, which happened to be in the earliest spring bloom when I was there. From the gardens, you can look up the hill toward Sacre Coeur, or downhill toward the Montmartre cemetery, the vineyards and Au Lapin Agile. The perfect place for an artist to live and create.

The view of the vineyards of Montmartre and Au Lapin Agile out the back window of Renoir's home

Pardon the bird poop, but this sign explains that The Swing was painted in this garden, where a replica of the swing still hangs from a tree.

I don't care if it's not the same swing from 135 years ago. I sat on it and still got goose bumps.

For more about Renoir, I recommend the book Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland, which tells the story behind another one of my favorite Renoir paintings. Maybe later this spring I will plan a day trip out to La Maison Fournaise in Chatou on the Seine, where Luncheon of the Boating Party was painted. Care to join me?