Immersed in the Impressionists – Part Two

In my last post I related how Dancing for Degas started me down the path of trying to find out how the Impressionists were affected by war.

After reading that novel, my next venture into the world of art fiction was the Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George.  (I know Georges Seurat is a Post-Impressionist, so he doesn’t really fit in with my title, but he’s close enough for me.)

Sunday on the Isle of La Grande Jatte is another painting I would love to jump into (and my mother’s favorite painting), so I thought watching the musical about its creation would be a treat.

Maybe it was because I had just read Dancing for Degas, but the plot seemed identical to me – the model is desperate for the artist to stop working and fall in love with her, and the artist just wants to work.  In this case, the model (played by Bernadette Peters) just seemed unbelievably naggy.  Georges Seurat (played by Mandy Patinkin) sings a song that is just a continual list of the colors he is dotting on his masterpiece, and the model interjects, “George!”  about every ten seconds.  Every now and then they are interrupted by rich investors that don’t understand Seurat’s technique.

Sunday in the Park with George first came out in 1984, and the video is from 1999.  That maybe explains the dated attitude of  “woman interferes with man’s important work.”

The costumes are absolutely wonderful though, so if you’re interested in those, you might want to skim through the video to see them.

Next I came across The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan, also about one of Degas’ ballerina models.

Little Dancer Age Fourteen by Edgar Degas

from the usual place

I was surprised that another book about Degas and his ballerinas had been published within three years of Dancing for Degas, but I was curious to see another perspective, so I read it too.  I’m glad I did, because The Painted Girls was better in many ways.

The main character in Dancing for Degas, Alexandrie, is a fictional person.  But The Painted Girls was based on the actual model for Little Dancer Age Fourteen, Marie van Goethem, and her sisters Antoinette and Charlotte.  We think of the Little Dancer as an accessible work, a friendly, happy creation.  But at the time that Degas exhibited his statuette of Marie in 1881, newspapers said she had a “vicious muzzle,” and her face was “imprinted with the detestable promise of every vice.”  Degas exhibited the statuette next to some pastels he had done of convicted murderers, Émile Abadie and Michel Knobloch.  The juxtaposition made Buchanan curious as to his reason for doing so, and she decided to weave the stories of the sisters’ struggle to survive in poverty with those of the criminals’ trials.

The Painted Girls also seems firmly set in its era.  In Dancing for Degas, Alexandrie lives in Paris for years, but hardly mentions anything about it.  To me, it felt like the author tried to stick to generalities because she wasn’t sure of the actual details of life in that place and time.  But in The Painted Girls, rich details of work routines, neighborhoods, and even prisons gave the sense of a real world existing beyond the story.

In Dancing for Degas, the plot is pretty much limited to Alexandrie and whether she will manage to make Degas fall in love with her.  The Painted Girls has multiple interconnected plots.  Buchanan also adds depth as she considers a philosophy of the time that one’s physiognomy was one’s fate – that your facial characteristics revealed and determined your inner being.

When I read the interview with the author at the end of the book, I learned that she took the facts that are known about the three girls, and made her plot fit and explain those facts. To me that was even more impressive than if she had created a plot that she just thought was interesting.

The Painted Girls is not a comfortable read, because it is the story of very young girls coping with poverty, powerlessness, and crime, unprotected from the tragedies of life, but the bond between the sisters provides a tone of hope and strength throughout the book.