(Alastair Macaulay’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/25; via Pam Green.)
WASHINGTON — Like the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” Degas’s “Little Dancer” has become both symbol and myth: She’s a source of fascination, inspiration and speculation. But, just as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan were based on real children, we know who inspired this 1881 sculpture: Marie van Goethem, a young dancer who joined the Paris Opera Ballet in 1880.
There’s a double paradox here. On the one hand, the “Little Dancer” sculpture, though it has become a transcendent image, was radically anti-transcendent in style. It employed real hair and real ballet attire, covering them in wax (like preserving a butterfly in amber). Some parts of the sculpture allow us to see the truly mixed media with which Degas created her flesh beneath the wax. On the other hand, we don’t even know what happened to van Goethem after she was thrown out of the Paris Opera (in her teens, not long after the sculpture was exhibited). We don’t even know when or where she died.