Degas and the Little Dancer by Laurence Anholt is a fictionalized account of the story behind the statue of La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, one of Degas’ most recognized works. Laurence Anholt’s series on artists and their works is a nice way to introduce art to children, and makes what they see in a museum that much more accessible.
Degas and the Little Dancer is based on the story of Marie Genevieve van Goethem, a young student at the Paris Opera Ballet and Degas’ model for the statue. The story opens in a museum where the guard starts telling the story about the statue of the little ballerina. In the story, little Marie dreams of only one thing, wanting to be a dancer at the Paris Opera House. When she is old enough, she takes the entrance exam and much to her delight, is accepted into the program. The only thing that mars her big day is a run in with a bad-tempered old man (Degas). Initially, everything goes well and Marie is well on her way to reaching her goal, “and even Degas didn’t seem quite so frightening.” There’s even talk of giving her a staring role in the Christmas ballet, quite a coup for a young dancer. Then, one day, Marie’s father becomes ill and they can no longer afford the lessons she needs. Marie starts posing for Degas in order to earn extra money and hopefully keep dancing. She ends up having to stop dancing in order to help support her family, but two years later she receives an invitation to an art exhibition. Much to her surprise, at the exhibition she sees a sculpture of her, La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans. While not quite in the way she had dreamed, she does become a famous dancer.
Degas and the Little Dance is a sweet way to introduce children to some of Degas’ work. The story flip-flops between a present day retelling in front of the statue and Anholt’s story behind the making of the statue, inspiring children to let their own imaginations fill in the details behind other works of art they may see on a trip to a museum After Degas’ death, the original wax statue of La Petite Danseuse was cast in a series of 28 bronzes which can be found on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Norton Simon Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Tate, Joslyn Art Museum, and the Musée d’Orsay. This is a great book to read if you’re planning a trip to one of those museums. We’re planning on using the statute as a starting point for a scavenger hunt!