I love books about ballerinas, and I love books with art tie-ins, so this was a perfect novel for me. Set in Paris from 1878-1895, The Painted Girls follows three sisters, Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte, whose father has passed away and whose mother is habitually drunk. All three girls must help support the family, or they’ll be evicted from their apartment. Antoinette, who was a ballet student, flunked out but managed to land a walk-on acting job at the Opéra. Marie and Charlotte enter the ballet school at the Opéra, which will earn them a small stipend. Together with what their mother makes doing laundry, they barely squeak by.
Classes at the ballet school are often observed by mothers and by abonnés (the French word for season-ticket holders, but seems also to mean patrons or protectors, men who give the students gifts and money, often with expectations attached). Another observer is Monsieur Degas, who sketches the students in class. Degas asks Marie to pose for him in his studio, to which she happily agrees because it means extra money.
Meanwhile, Antoinette entangles herself with Émile, a boy who seduces her. Even though she occasionally experiences his violence, she doesn’t believe he is capable of murder, which he is eventually accused of. But Marie hates him on first sight, which Antoinette attributes to jealousy of the time she spends with him instead of with her sisters.
Meanwhile, Marie dreams of passing the exam to be part of the ballet troupe. Dancing fills her with joy. Here Buchanan’s words satisfy my longing to enter the world of the dancer: “I ache to hear the step, the piano cleaving the air and coaxing the place behind my heart, filling me from inside out. I want to dance again, to feel the music lifting my limbs, arching my back, streaming from my fingertips, my toes. Grace is with me today, also steadiness and lightness and speed.”
As Marie progresses in her dancing, she realizes she needs extra help to catch up with the other dancers her age who have more experience. She gets a job kneading bread early every morning in a bakery so she can pay for additional lessons, which makes her days so long she can’t get sufficient sleep. An abonné comments on the dark circles under her eyes, and when he finds out they’re there because she’s working so hard, he tells her to quit the bakery job and model for him once a week, and he’ll pay her more than she’s making at the bakery. It doesn’t take long for Marie to realize Monsieur Lefebvre is not a real artist.
Degas, however, has made a wax sculpture of Marie, which is to be part of an exhibition. When Marie goes to see it, it’s not on display.
When Émile is convicted of murder, he writes a letter to the editor of Le Figaro, the newspaper, explaining what a deprived childhood he had, forcing himself into a life of crime. The letter aroused such sympathy that his sentence was reduced from the guillotine to a life of forced hard labor in New Caledonia. Émile pleads with Antoinette to follow him there, but that will cost her way more than what she could put aside from her wages at the laundry where she now works. She signs on at the brothel where a friend works, and stockpiles all her earnings until her regular client tells her he’s getting married and will be on his honeymoon for the next six months. Distressed with losing her main source of income, she picks his pocket as he sleeps, netting 700 francs.
Why did she think she wouldn’t be caught?
In the meantime, a man by the name of Cesare Lombroso says that the criminal element shares certain facial features; if you study a person’s physiognomy, you can tell if he or she is genetically predisposed to commit violent crimes. His views take France by storm.
The next year, Degas’ sculpture of Marie, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, is again scheduled to be exhibited. (Degas had pulled it the previous year because he wasn’t satisfied with it.) This time Marie finds it near a pastel sketch made at the trial of Émile and his accomplice, called Criminal Physiognomies. Critics connected her sculpture with the boys’ sketch, commenting on how ballet girls were among the lowest level of society, guilty of every vice.
Émile is accused of a second murder, on the word of his accomplice. Antoinette, who is being held in a convent, urges Marie to give her calendar to Émile’s lawyer, one that will prove he couldn’t have been the killer, and also providing an alibi for the accomplice. Marie, instead, burns the calendar, damning the accomplice (who may have been innocent, but bragging of the crime) to the guillotine.
Eventually, kind-hearted Marie is filled with remorse at the thought of condemning an innocent boy and loses her love for dancing.
By this time, I was a pretty depressed reader. Was Paris in the late 1880s really a place where poor young girls were victimized? Where people were assumed guilty on the basis of appearance? Boy, things never change, do they? I don’t want it to be true.
I first saw a picture of a bronze of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen when I was a freshman in high school in 1966, in a teen girls’ magazine called Ingenue of which I devoured every issue. It has been one of my favorite pieces of art forever. To have the girl’s appearance described as “apish” broke my heart. To me, she was always beautiful.
Buchanan conducted extensive historical research for the book. Antoinette, Marie, Charlotte, and Émile were real people, as was Edgar Degas. Many events in the book are documented, and some are partially based on fact.
The end of the book reveals the much more satisfactory true subsequent events in the lives of the sisters. Charlotte ended up being a dancer of note and a teacher of dance at the Opéra, a career that spanned 53 years.
Even though parts of the book are incredibly sad, The Painted Girls is a compelling story.