Little Dancer Aged Fourteen illuminates a slice of art history with ravishing acuity ... a tribute that melds research with quotations, intelligent inquiry, and the underside of the Paris Opera in the nineteenth century. In rhythmic translation, the face behind the sculpture puzzles and beguiles ... the author candidly admits her tendency to imagine. In a distinctly literary third act, the author weighs her own choices in the text, as well as the ineffable Marie who inspires obsession.
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is a strange hybrid of art history and art appreciation, a personal narrative that reads like a novel ... the author’s obsession is, if not contagious, at least fascinating ... While Laurens is captivated by Marie [the dancer], there’s simply more known about Degas. It’s only a biography in the most roundabout way ... Laurens wants to treat Marie, transformed by Degas into an object, as this book’s subject. It’s quixotic, but also magical. I thought of Patrick Modiano, the Nobel Laureate whose novels often use the conventions of crime stories but offer little resolution or satisfaction. In Laurens’s work, as in so many of Modiano’s stories, the thread unravels into maddening loose ends ... She has not solved a mystery (even if she turns up some interesting tidbits from various archives), but Laurens has done something more challenging: she’s captured what it feels like to think. Her enthusiasm, the million little connections that she makes between the dancer, the artist, and her own life, subsume the reader ... Unanswered are the questions of what art is for, who Marie was, and even whether or not Laurens likes Degas. I take this as a measure of her success as a critic. Some questions can’t be answered, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be asked.
The essence of late 19th century art: Famous man paints nameless woman, her body and image becoming a mantle upon which his notoriety hangs. Who were these women? Typically, no one cares. So it’s refreshing to see an author like Camille Laurens who does.