Degas, Dancers and Phrenology

Little Dancer of Fourteen Years

Sookie St. James is like most chefs, passionate about what she does,  so much that she hates conforming to the wishes of her vegetarian customers. In Haunted Leg, she begins to rant;

“You don’t dictate to an artist, you don’t tell him what to do. I mean, no one ever walked up to Degas and said, “Hey, pal, easy with the dancers, enough already. Draw a nice fruit bowl once in a while, will ya?”

As Sookie mentions, Degas is best known for his numerous portraits of ballerinas. If you were to look at the walls of an average ballet studio, you would probably find at least one Degas.

Although typically known as a painter, Edgar Degas also explored sculpting. His only sculpture shown in exhibition is The Little Dancer of Fourteen which is an excellent example of the theory of phrenology.

Phrenology chart mapping out the different aspects of personality

Phrenology (sometimes known as Cerebral physiology) is the “science” of head reading, where it was thought that personality could be determined by the physical features of the subject; specifically, the raised bumps on one’s forehead. Phrenology was first developed by Dr. Franz Joseph Gall in the 18th-century. Gall’s research was the result of numerous brain dissections and traits he noticed from classmates.

Although phrenology was thought to tell whether a subject had better language skills or musical abilities, it also was believed to find predispositions for criminal behaviour. This where Degas’ statue gets more interesting. The subject, Marie de Goethem, was known as an “opera rat” who became a ballerina to end the impoverished life she was born into.

Marie’s facial features were exaggerated to reflect the phrenology teachings of the time. Her nose was more angular, and her stance denotes criminal behaviour which caused outrage upon its exhibition.

Modern critics note the similarities between phrenology, racism and classism. Pointing out that the characteristics of criminal predispositions are commonly found among people of colour.



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Dawn Powell: The Unknown American Writer

When asked who your favourite writer is, you might say Hemingway, Dickens, Shakespeare, or any number of infamous authors. But, one that wouldn’t be commonly mentioned would be one of Rory’s favourite authors, Dawn Powell.

In Help Wanted, Rory recommends a book to her friend, Lane, which sparks this conversation:

“Dawn Powell, I’ve never heard of her.”

“Nobody has, which is a shame because she wrote 16 amazing novels, 9 plays and there are some who actually claim that it was Powell who made the jokes that Dorothy Parker got credit for.”

Dawn Powell is not a common name to most readers. She’s what is known as a “writers’ writer” – someone obscure that as Gore Vidal once wrote, “always just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion.”

Dawn Powell and her husband Joseph Gousha

Powell was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio in 1896. Dawn’s life was forever changed when her mother died when Dawn was only seven years old, and her father remarried a few years later to an abusive woman named Sabra Stearns. After her stepmother burned some of her notebooks in 1910, Dawn Powell moved in with her Aunt Orpha who encouraged her literary aspirations.

The Diaries of Dawn Powell written by Tim Page

Before her death in 1965 Dawn had completed 16 novels, ten plays, dozens of short stories, and been nominated for a National Book Award. Had it not been for Gore Vidal’s editorial on her books in 1987, her works would have remained out of print.


Vidal’s work on Dawn Powell inspired Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tim Page to begin his lifelong quest to bring her to notoriety. After publishing his biographical novel, Dawn Powell: A Biography, Page attempted to sell some of Powell’s diaries. Despite his efforts, Dawn Powell was still too unknown to warrant a bidding frenzy, and the auction was called off.

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