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Paris, 1878. Following the death of their father from
overwork, the three Van Goethem sisters find their lives
upended. Without their father's wages, and with what little
their mother earns as a laundress disappearing down the
absinthe bottle, eviction from their single boarding room
seems imminent. With few options for work available for a
girl, bookish fourteen-year-old Marie and her younger sister
Charlotte are dispatched to the Paris Opera, where for a
scant seven francs a week, the girls will be trained to
enter its famous ballet. Their older sister, stubborn and
insolent seventeen-year-old Antoinette, dismissed from the
ballet, finds herself launched into the orbit of Emile Zola
and the influence of his notorious naturalist masterpiece
L'Assommoir -- and into the arms of a young man who may turn
out to be a murderer.
Marie throws herself into dance, hoping her natural gift
and hard work will enable her to escape her circumstances,
but the competition to become one of the famous etoiles at
whose feet flowers are thrown nightly is fierce, and Marie
is forced to turn elsewhere to make money. Cripplingly self-
conscious about her low-class appearance, she nonetheless
finds herself modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where
her image will forever be immortalized in his controversial
sculpture Little Dancer, Aged 14. Antoinette, meanwhile,
descends lower and lower in society and must make the choice
between honest labor as a laundress and the more profitable
avenues available to a young woman in the Paris demimonde --
that is unless her love for the dangerous Emile Abadie
derails her completely.
Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and
societal change, The Painted Girls is ultimately a
tale of two remarkable girls rendered uniquely vulnerable to
the darker impulses of ''civilized society.'' In the end,
each will come to realize that her individual salvation, if
not survival, lies with the other.
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