Saturday, February 20, 2010


I found this little gem of a hardcover book for a dollar at a local thrift shop. I say little, because it is just 5 1/2 inches by 7 1/2 inches. I had better keep this review short too, or it will be longer than the book's 162 pages! But small and short as it is, it is by no means a "fluff" book.

Harriet Scott Chessman's "Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Papers" is centered around five paintings by American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. Her sister, Lydia, is the model in all of these paintings. (Each painting is reproduced as a full-page plate.)

When the book opens in Paris in 1878, Lydia and Mary are living with their mother, father and sister in a Paris apartment. The year before, 41-year-old Lydia had been diagnosed with Bright's Disease, a serious affliction which we now call nephritis. Always weak and pale, Lydia sometimes spends days or weeks unable to leave her bed. But when she is better she walks, with much difficulty, the short distance to Mary's studio.

In contrast, Mary (called May by her family) is robust, vibrant, brimming with life. Her works are displayed in the Impressionist Exhibition and they are selling well. She has a bustling social life with many friends, and is beginning a romance with another famous painter, Edgar Degas. At first Lydia is wary of Degas and jealous of his relationship with Mary, but a companionship builds between her and Edgar. Their relationship is not romantic, but one of deep understanding.

Lydia is fully aware of her impending death, as related in this passage: "And here is May, her life in full flush, a success now, and healthy, and boldly independent. And she will continue, for years and years, after I'm no longer here. She'll ride her horse in the Bois de Boulogne, she'll paint and visit galleries and go to the Opera and to Versailles, and in the summer she'll come back to Marly, or she'll go to the Mediterranean and feel the breezes, watch the water turn color through a whole day, a whole week, and she'll have her friends, and more than friends, for after Edgar Degas, she may love someone else, and embrace him in another garden, and even if I am a thought in her mind, a sadness, she will have happiness too. Her days glitter, round and new, like gold coins in a huge jar, filled almost to the brim, her only worry how to spend them."

The book is filled with other poignant scenes, but also with lovely, lyrical depictions of life as noted by Lydia, its keen observer rather than its participant. Looking out her apartment window, Lydia sees this: "Over the tops of the apartments across from us, I see the white and cream buildings scrambling up the hill of Montmartre, among trees and gardens. Looking down to the Avenue of Trudaine, I see a girl in a royal blue coat and a red hat racing down the street with a dog. I am in love with all of this, this bright and foreign life."

There are also beautiful descriptions of Mary's paintings: "Looking at the painting {"The Cup of Tea"} I see a woman, clothed in pink and white, the white (my dress's lace) making a brilliant cloud around her neck, and again at the opening of her sleeve, with a tumult of color (the hyacinths) around her head. I bend closer to the woman's face, her chin half-hidden in whiteness, her forehead in the swirls of golden-red, her eyes, touched with quick strokes of blue, looking elsewhere, her mouth half-smiling, holding in her thoughts."

Three years go by, during which Mary paints Lydia in a series of vignettes - reading the morning paper, drinking a cup of tea, crocheting in the garden, driving a buggy and embroidering in her room. As time passes, Lydia, who often feels she is a burden to her family, one who can only live vicariously through Mary and her young nieces and nephews, comes to the realization that she has been a great contributor to Mary's art and learns just how valuable she is to Mary. "Jai besoin de toi", Mary pleads when Lydia demurs to pose, "I need you. It's as simple as that."

I was not familiar with any of the five Cassat portraits featured in the book, but I will certainly study them more closely now, knowing what Lydia was thinking or how she was feeling when the paintings were being executed (at least in Ms. Chessman's mind's eye): how her illness made her feel, the knowledge of her impending death, her deep and abiding affection for Mary, her changing feelings toward Degas and her memories of her lost love, who was killed in the American Civil War.

Lydia Cassatt died in Paris in 1882. But she lives on in Mary Cassatt's paintings. This book, too, will live long in my memory.

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