Archive for the ‘Harriet Scott Chessman’ Category

How very suitable, to read a book about an invalid while sick at home myself.  That is what happened yesterday when, confined to my apartment, I read Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman, a spare little novel that covers but a brief period in the life of Lydia Cassatt, elder sister of the impressionist painter Mary, while the family resided in Paris from 1878 to 1881.  When the novel begins, Lydia is 41 years old and battling Bright’s disease, which will eventually kill her in 1882.

I remember being fascinated by Cassatt’s paintings when I was school, much to my Emily Carr-loving art teacher’s frustration.  Lydia was her sister’s favourite model and the subject of the Cassatt painting that first intrigued me, Lydia Leaning on Her Arms.  The novel is told from Lydia’s point of view and through her we see Mary (or, as the family calls her, May) the painter.  Lydia is not always comfortable with her sister’s work, upset by the suggestiveness of Little Girl in a Blue Armchair and by the dark, somewhat jarring colours that feature in many of the paintings.  While she is proud of her sister’s work and success, she is troubled by Mary’s desire for acknowledgment and upset that the family portraits would be sold for profit.

Perhaps the most fascinating part, for me, is Lydia’s perception of the relationship between Mary and Degas.  Here, Lydia observes a growing intimacy between her beloved sister and the famous painter who she is never quite comfortable with.  It is only towards the end of the novel, as Lydia’s conditioning is worsening, that she begins to reevaluate her view on Degas. 

It is a sweet, rather lyrical book that leaves me wanting to know more about the Cassatts.  So much about their earlier life in America and even Germany is alluded to but never delved into or explained.  My interest has been sparked and what I really need now is a nice, factual biography.

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