Marie van Goethem

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Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, detail of Degas' statue of van Goethem.

Marie Geneviève van Goethem (or Goetham or Goeuthen; born 7 June 1865) was a French ballet student and dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet, and the model for Edgar Degas's statue Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans).

Early life[edit]

Marie was the daughter of a laundress and a tailor, who came to Paris in the early 1860s from Belgium. She was born in 1865 in the diverse 9th arrondissement of Paris. Marie's oldest sister, Antoinette, was born in Brussels in 1861. A second older sister, also named Marie, died eighteen days after her birth in 1864. Marie's younger sister, Louise Joséphine, born in Paris in 1870, adopted the name of Charlotte and died there in 1945. Her father died at some point between 1870 and 1880, leaving Madame van Goethem to fend for her three daughters on a laundress's income.

In 1865, the year Marie was born, the family moved to a stone apartment building on 'Rue Notre-Dame de Lorette' called 'Place Bréda' near Degas's studio on 'Rue Saint-Georges'. The Bréda district was one of the city's poorest and most squalid areas for prostitution. In 1880, after frequently changing their place of residence (an indicator of an inability to pay the rent on time) the family settled on 'Rue de Douai' on the lower slopes of Montmartre, a few blocks from Degas's studio, then located on 'Rue Fontaine'.

In 1878, Marie and Charlotte were accepted into the dance school of the Paris Opéra, where Antoinette was employed as an extra. In 1880 Marie passed the examination admitting her to the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera Ballet and made her debut on the stage in La Korrigane.[1]

Marie and Degas[edit]

Between 1878 and 1881, Degas drew, painted and sculpted Marie in artworks including Dancer with Fan, Dancing Lesson, Dancer Resting, numerous preparatory sketches, and most famously in Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. He frequently attended ballet performances at the Paris Opera and often observed classes at the dance school. By posing for Degas, Marie likely earned five to six francs per four-hour sitting.[2]

Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881[edit]

When La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans was shown in Paris at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881, it received mixed reviews. Though critics lauded the work as “the only truly modern attempt" at sculpture, the majority were shocked by the piece. They compared the dancer to a monkey and an Aztec, and referred to her as a "flower of precocious depravity" with a face "marked by the hateful promise of every vice" and "bearing the signs of a profoundly heinous character."[3] She looked like a medical specimen, they reported, in part because Degas exhibited the sculpture inside a glass case.

Subsequent life[edit]

In the year following the exhibition of the sculpture, Marie's dance career ended as a result of missing many dance classes.[4] An article in L'Evénement, which preceded the dismissal by two months, reported "Miss van Goeuthen—fifteen years old, has an older sister who is an extra at the Opera and a younger sister in the Opera dance school—consequently she frequents the Martyrs Tavern and the Rat Mort." Neither tavern was a desirable place for a young girl. Though no trace of her subsequent life or death has been found, the historical record indicates her older sister, Antoinette, was jailed just prior to Marie's dismissal for stealing 700 francs from a patron at a tavern and her younger sister, Charlotte, became a dancer of some distinction and teacher at the dance school during her fifty-three-year career with the Paris Opera Ballet.[1]

In fiction, documentary and the arts[edit]

Cathy Marie Buchanan's novel, The Painted Girls, presents a fictionalised account of the life of Marie van Goethem,[5] as does Carolyn Meyer's young adult novel Marie, Dancing [6] and Laurence Anholt's children's picture book Degas and the Little Dancer.[7] Most recently, a non-fiction work by Camille Laurens, La petite danseuse de quatorze ans. (2017) discusses the dancer, the artist, the work, and its reception.

The BBC documentary The Private Life of a Masterpiece: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, produced in 2004, closely examined La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, the circumstances of Marie's life, and the critical reaction to the sculpture.

With Boyd Gaines as Degas, and Rebecca Luker and New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck as adult and young Marie, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts premiered the Susan Stroman, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty stage musical, Little Dancer, from October 25 to November 30 2014.[citation needed]

The 5th Ave Theater in Seattle, WA is hosting the premier run of Marie, Dancing Still. It tells the Story of Marie from the perspective of Older Marie looking back on her time with Degas.


  1. ^ a b Kahane, Martine. "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen—The Model" (Degas Sculptures: Catalogue Raisonné of the Bronzes, International Arts, 2002. 101-07).
  2. ^ Kendall, Richard. Degas and the Little Dancer, Yale UP, 1998. 25-44
  3. ^ "Degas's Little Dancer is still on the point of controversy". 2011-11-02.
  4. ^ Trachtman, Paul, "Degas and His Dancers", Smithsonian Magazine.
  5. ^ "The Painted Girls". 2009-02-04.
  6. ^ "Marie, Dancing". 2009-02-04.
  7. ^ "Degas and the Little Dancer".

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