Harriet Scott Chessman
(Plume)Mary Cassatt was a 19th Century hippy who ran off to Paris to hang out with the likes of Degas, Renoir, and Pissarro, where she painted, became a part of the Impressionist movement, and won no small fame.
This is part of the story here. The other part is about Mary and her sister Lydia who was model for a number of her more famous paintings. The focus here is on five specific canvases: "Lydia at the Tapestry Frame," "Lydia Crocheting in the Garden," "Woman and Child Driving," "The Cup of Tea," and "Woman Reading." We get to participate in the painting of each ofthese, along with commentary as the characters look at (and react to) the actual act of painting, and to the finished product. For instance, when Mary sells one of the family scenes, Mother gets in a snit because they are selling something she sees as very personal; selling off the family, as it were, to some stranger.
There is, however, a shadow hanging over their happiness. Lydia has Bright's Disease. She is dying, slowly, which lends a certain poignancy to her role as model; soon she will be gone, and only the paintings will be left behind.
It is a clever novelistic conceit --- and on one level it works. Using paintings to tie the novel together gives it a reality and a sense of you-are-there that can be very effective.
However, there are several problems with Ms. Chessman's work. Despite the author's worshipful attitude, Mary Cassatt has been seriously overrated as a painter. She was derivative, tended to slavishly copy Renoir without being able to capture his sweet sensuality, his perfect strokes, his lush union of passion and technique.She was certainly not half as talented as her brilliant American contemporary William Glackens.
I suspect that she has been glorified not only here but elsewhere because she was one of the few woman to dump Victorian America and hang out with the Impressionists. I suspect, too, that she is in the spotlight now because her paintings command sales in the millions of dollars. Whether they are worth it or not, the presence of her august companions has worked to make her acceptable to the rarefied world of rich collectors.
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This is fiction vérité and, in general, I'm not against cooking up such trickery if the author has something to say and in the process can create some drama. However, almost the only drama we get here is having Lydia groaning inwardly because she loves sister May so dearly she's willing to sit out there in the hot sun in the garden sweating under her frilly cap with a copy of Le Petit Journal in her hands, or hanging out there in the Bois in a carriage holding the reins of the horse with her aching arms while Mary whales away at the canvas until she says, finally, "C'est fini" (although no artist in her right mind would say "I'm done" because as those of us who have tried to paint know you are never ever done, even when you think you are done).
The major drama is whether Lydia will cack before Mary can finish one last painting of her at the loom, filling the room with the stink of oil paint and the both of them feeling misty because this is probably the last round-up.
Chessman's writing is not without some small art, but she has an annoying habit of dropping French phrases all over the place so we'll know this is happening in Paris and not Kansas City --- phrases like Mais non and Oui and Et bien and Et toi? sprinkled about hither and yon like dogshit in the springtime garden --- although note that she uses nothing but the simplest phrases in order to preserve the dignity of those of us who flunked Mrs. Blodgett's French II class so miserably so long ago.
Another annoyance is that we have to put up with a great deal of name dropping: Louisa May Alcott or at least her sister May Alcott who the family knows and Mary's friend Mallarmé and that creepy Degas with the burning eyes who keeps popping up here and there like a jack-in-
the-box. It turns out that Edgar has a bit of a crush on not only our painter but also on Lydia and this gives him a chance to come to her room one day and turn philosophical. He asks if she is better, and she says, Oui, pour le moment, and he says, "A moment can hold great value." Then he tells her that she gives a great deal to her sister, "A sense of something terribly valuable, something she must work her way towards, in paint." Lydia says,
"And that's good?"
Edgar laughs a short, sharp laugh. "Good? Oui, c'est bien. All of us need something to work towards --- to claw out way to, if necessary --- to crawl on our bellies to, through mud and across stones, in order to touch and understand a mere part of it."
The problem with this philosophical chit-chat is that Degas is not really developed enough for us to necessarily believe his "a moment can have great value" and that we must "crawl on our bellies" for anything --- even a good brie.
The best part of the book actually crops up at the very end --- not because Lydia is about to totter off to the grave but because one day Degas starts reading Tennyson to them and all of a sudden we --- and the sisters Cassatt --- find ourselves swept off our feet by the poem "Tithonus" --- even though, we would suggest, this particular verse has little or nothing to do with the plot-line.
Tithonus was cursed by the goddess Aurora to eternal life but not perpetual youth, and the truth is, unlike Lydia, he is, so to speak, dying to die. (His withered body was ultimately transformed into that of a grasshopper.)
So the poem has nothing to do with poor Lydia and her miserable disease, but it is a humdinger nonetheless, probably was just stuck in there because the author needed a bit of neo-classical versification to round out her story. She picks and chooses some choice bits, but here is the whole of it --- and if nothing else good comes out of Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, at least there is this reminder of one of the great poems by one of the great poets of the Late Victorian Period:
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair'd shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn....
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kiss'd
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,
While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.
Yet hold me not for ever in thine East:
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.--- Lolita Lark