Her name is Marie van Goethem, and she’s a young ballet student at the Paris Opera. She stands informally in fourth position, her head back, the ribbon holding her braid dangling. Her hands are joined behind her. Her eyes are closed, her face upturned.
What is she thinking about? Maybe she dreams of becoming a famous ballerina one day.
Marie regularly appears in the work of French artist Edgar Degas, but in this case, she’s not rendered on canvas but in bronze. She’s his most famous sculpture, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer.
A few steps away stand my sister, my nieces, and in a room nearby, my daughter. We are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and even though we are tired, hungry, and headachy from a pre-dawn flight (at least I am), we are excited to be here.
Marie and her two sisters studied and danced at the Paris Opera. They had a hard life; their family struggled to put food on the table. To earn some money, Marie regularly posed for Degas, who likely paid her several francs for several hours’ time of sitting (or standing) still.
In 1881, Degas exhibited The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer as part of the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition. Critics panned it because it did not fit the current conventions for sculpture or art. The original sculpture that Degas showed was made of wax with real fabrics rather than of stone or metal.
Another problem, according to critics, was that the work was not the standard idealized version of its subject. One particularly strident critic, in insulting Degas’ rendering of Marie’s face, insulted her too.
I’ve seen the little dancer before, and I find her charming. My family does as well. One of my nieces is a dancer, too, and her face shines as she looks at the sculpture and the paintings surrounding it.
The gallery is surprisingly empty, so we are able to linger and talk and take photos with Marie in the middle.
It’s just a few moments, but it’s a highlight of the trip for me. Sometimes just a few moments with beauty is all we need for a memory that will last a lifetime.
As we head into the holiday season, may your days be filled with many moments—and memories—of beauty, wonder, and gratitude.
Do you have a favorite memory of a work you saw in a museum? I'd love to hear all about it. Just leave a comment below or email me at email@example.com.
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