Finished May 10
Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman
I picked this book up from one of my to-be-read piles as a nice slim novel to slip into my purse. I started it just after finishing the book Painted Girls and was interested to see Degas reappear as a character here. Chessman brings us into the life of the American painter Mary Cassatt, who lived in Paris for much of her professional life. She does this through the eyes of Lydia, Mary's older sister.
Lydia suffered from Bright's disease and had more regular flare-ups of debilitation during her last couple of years. Not very much is known historically about Lydia, who never married, and while Chessman used biographical information of Mary Cassatt and her family, knowledge of the lives of people of this wealth bracket living in Paris at this time, and family letters to frame her story, she also added elements to flesh out Lydia's character.
The book is framed around five portraits of Lydia by Mary, and each portrait has its own chapter here which includes a full colour reproduction of the painting in question. We see the relationship between the two sisters, Mary's involvement in the artistic and cultural life of Paris, including her close relationship with Degas, the Cassatt family life, and the creation of these wonderful paintings.
The first, the cover painting, Lydia Reading the Morning Paper, was created in Cassatt's studio in Paris in 1878-1879, and this chapter introduces us to the characters, Lydia's illness, and Cassatt's world.
The second, The Cup of Tea, was also created in Mary's studio in Paris, this time in 1880-1881, gives us further insight into the sisters' relationship.
The third, Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly, was created at the Cassatt country house in the summer of 1880. This gives us a glimpse of life in the country, the activities the family did while they were there and the visitors they had.
The fourth, Woman and Child Driving, was again an open air setting, this time in Paris and with additional subjects. The child is Degas' niece, Odile, and the man is a Cassatt family servant.
The last, Lydia Seated at an Embroidery Frame, was done in the Cassatt home in Paris in 1881, and shows another common pastime for women.
What the novel gives us is a closer look at these particular artworks, and some interpretation of them, as well as a look into the relationship between the model and the artist.
A lovely novel with a unique structure and subject.