Degas and his Dancer

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Degas went to the dance studio to paint the ballerinas. He never expected to find her.

Submitted: February 04, 2015

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Submitted: February 04, 2015

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“Class, over the next few months, we will have a guest. His name is Monsieur Degas. Please respect him and do not speak to him unless he prompts you.” said the dance instructor to the young girls as they regarded the stranger who was sitting in the corner of the room.

The man ignored the acknowledgement; he was already hastily scribbling something with a piece of charcoal. He seemed withdrawn and unapproachable to most of the young dancers, so they ignored him and returned their attentions to the instructor.

Throughout the rehearsal, he would move from corner to corner, from doorway to the top of the staircase to overlook them. The girls found him strange, but funny; they would make faces and giggle softly as he maneuvered himself around the studio, sketching furiously.

Marie van Goethem, however, observed the man carefully. His name sparked a few distant memories, and his brown eyes seemed so familiar.

After the rehearsal, she approached him. Well, she approached his sketchbook; he had left it to speak with the owner of the studio. She flipped through the pages, examining the blurred features of her friends. The drawings were beautiful; she could almost see the movement and the way the light would reflect in her mind’s eye.

She found a few pieces of paper and a piece of charcoal that had been discarded and began sketching the face of Monsieur Degas. His eyes were large and brown, and he had dark shadows under them.

She drew his face with a slight smile. "He needed to be happier," she thought.

“Marie!” The instructor snapped at her. The charcoal flew across the paper when he startled her, and the man’s eyes were blackened with the charcoal. “That is Monsieur Degas’ work, you impudent…” The man settled as the artist placed a hand on his shoulder, and the man left after a whispered few words.

“Did you draw this?” The young man whispered as he knelt beside Marie. “It’s rather nice. Well, except for the smile and the eyes.”

Marie silently nodded. “Your drawings were pretty, and I thought you would like a drawing of yourself, and you need to smile more. You drew my mother once; I remember you. She was ill, and my father wanted a portrait. He died last year.” She said hurriedly.

Degas gave her a genuine smile as he gathered his things. “Thank you for the portrait.”

He remembered the painting, he believed. The man had not liked the depiction of his wife, so Degas had kept the painting, calling it The Convalescent. It still hung in his studio, hidden behind several other canvases.

They both left the studio going in the same direction, so they walked alongside each other with Marie making casual conversation and Degas replying politely, albeit distractedly. This young child seemed so familiar; he could almost see parts of himself. She paid close attention to detail and had the same underlying melancholy that resulted from the recent deaths of their fathers.

They arrived at the door of her home, and he walked her to the door. A large woman answered the door, and he immediately recognized her.

“Madame, what a pleasant surprise.” He tipped his hat to her as the child ran into the house. Her lanky limbs and brown hair were so reminiscent for something he couldn’t place.

“Edgar,” the woman whispered with a cracked voice, "It is nice to see you as well. What brings you here?”

The artist was suddenly struck with an idea. “I would like to paint your daughter in my studio. She is the most tolerable of the dancers. Of course, I will compensate you for her time. Four francs per session? She can start next week. You may attend, if you think I have any ulterior motives.”

The mother jumped at the income, and soon, he had several scenes that included the child and her troupe.

They both enjoyed the studio sessions; they would talk for hours upon hours of gossip, of her friends, of her dreams of being a painter or a dancer, and of his childhood. He regarded her as his child, and she regarded him as a father. They became dependent upon one another; she was his only spark of happiness, and he was able to talk her through her troubles.

“My mother says that my father was not my father.” She said one day as she helped him find the canvas from their last session.  “What does she mean?”

The artist was silent for a few moments. “Marie, would you go wash these brushes for me?” He diverted her question as he began mixing paints. He remembered her father, and she could claim no resemblance to him.  He had noticed, however, that she had his brown eyes. Everything made sense now.

“But she says that you are my…”

“Marie, brushes.” He snapped as he accidentally dropped a pot of paint. When had his hands started shaking? His breathing was shallow. He was panicking to say the least. But why? He had been involved with her mother, yes, but that affair had thirteen years ago. Marie couldn’t be that old, could she?  

Marie returned with the brushes and threw them into the box of clean brushes.Her eyes were red. The artist was lost as to how to comfort her or how to make sense of everything.

“Wait,” he moved after her. “Marie. How old are you?”

“Twelve, almost thirteen. Let me be. You clearly do not want me to be your daughter.” Her tone was sharp as she turned towards him after pulling a sketchbook from her bag. She found a piece of charcoal and began scribbling furiously.

His suspicions were right, then. He sighed and crossed to the girl, forcing her to look him in the eyes. He embraced her. “Whether you are my daughter or not, I love you like one. Now, let’s look at your drawing and I’ll show you some of my paintings.” And all was well between the two.

***

Marie grew both in her artistic ability and in her resemblance to him. She had her father’s face and his eye for color. She worked as an assistant, but she truly blossomed as a dancer and continued to model for him, often bringing her friends. He grew to have a paternal care for them as well. His ballerina paintings made him renowned throughout Paris. He even made a sculpture of his tiny dancer, debuting it at an exposition.

He was the happiest he had ever been.

Fate, however, never favored the artist. His vision was slowly fading and Marie’s visits grew more infrequent as the months progressed. After not seeing his daughter for weeks, he returned to the studio, only to find she had been removed from her dance classes. He found her friends who whispered of a few late-night cafés that Marie was reportedly frequenting.

Under the guise of making sketches, he found her in the arms of a drunkard. Her face was sunken and her skin was bruised. He caught her in the alley after the night had ended. Her clothing was tattered, and her eye was purple. She walked with a limp.

He called her name. She froze, ready to flee, and turned towards him. “Father?”

She ran to his arms for protection and hurriedly explained that her mother had forced her three daughters into the cafés, that money was low, and she was trying to survive.

Her father let her, along with her sisters, into his home without a second thought. The sisters refused the offer, but the child much prefered her father, and she became his assistant once more.

***

She tried to return to dance, but her injuries would not allow the required movements. Thus she drew and painted, learning her father’s craft. Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt became kind mother figures and she painted alongside the children of Monet and Pissarro.

She became depressed, however. Paris contained too much of her past. She could rarely turn the corner without being recognized by a former patron. Society tormented her; she was a woman who painted and she was a former prostitute. She would never be successful, and she would never find a husband. She ached to be free of the confining city.

She spoke with Cassatt and Pissarro one day as her father ran errands. Pissarro had exclaimed that his son felt the same way, and Cassatt had disapproved, saying her father’s heart would be broken. Cassatt was right. Marie was introduced to Pissarro’s son soon thereafter and they immediately felt a deep enough connection.

Oh, their fathers had raged when they heard of their plans to marry. Pissarro threatened to disowned his son, and Degas flew into a fit of rage and refused to speak to her voluntary. Their relationship never recovered and she left no mailing address.

When she left, a melancholy hung in the air, and his paintings took red tones that contrasted the white canvas. He was inconsolable and often threw brushes at his unsuspecting visitors.

Eventually, he was alone, having been deserted by any remaining friends. Over the years, as he became almost completely deaf and blind, he came to regret his decisions. The light of his life was lost over a petty argument.

He obsessed over his actions, wondering for any hope of reconciliation. No, he had no way to reach her. His obsessions turned to his artwork. He lived in a world of darkness and of bright whites and reds; he was consumed by it. He would repaint and redraw at least ten times, especially the dancers, and the children ran when he walked the streets of Paris, talking to himself and searching for something.

He died with regrets, yes. He did not regret, however, the chance he took by walking an aspiring ballerina home from her rehearsal. Even though she had caused him a pain worse than death, he knew that, for at least one time in his life, he had known true happiness.

***

Some years later, a woman with large brown eyes stood in front of the small grave. She placed a white lily upon the headstone and turned, her limp further highlighted by the uneven grounds.

"I'm sorry that it took me so long, father. I guess people only make peace with the dead when they are the ones dying." She coughed and winced at the red on her white palm. "Please forgive me."

 


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