on April 11, 2003
There is much that is admirable about the novella LYDIA CASSATT READING THE MORNING PAPER, and there is just as much that is annoying. Inescapably, this fictionalized biography of a valiant woman succumbing to a fatal illness has a subtext of pathos. Thus, hardly surprisingly, the story never quite is able to get past its own grim underlying reality.
At the same time, though author Harriet Scott Chessman is a wonderful writer, the book is so short that it seems as if she is cheating her readers. There have been several works of fiction in the recent past offering possible background accounts of famous artists, or their subjects, or of the periods during which their most famous works were created. The two similar books about Vermeer, GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE and GIRL WITH PEARL EARRING, each are more fully formed than Lydia Cassatt's report is here. Maybe it is fair to say that this idea of writing a fiction around a well-regarded painting is an idea which has been worked, and worked successfully--and that it is past time for other authors to move along to new forms of inspiration.
It is jarring to read thoughts being put into the mind of Lydia Cassatt when the author has no way of knowing what Lydia might have been thinking. This device completely breaks the natural flow of the story. Of course, this always is a risk when any author writes a fictionalized account of an episode in a real person's life.
The detail of life in Paris, specifically the lives of rich expatriate Americans in that moment of Henry James and Edith Wharton, are vivid and fascinating. The exploration of the movement of Impressionist art at the very time when it still was being formed by artists then considered iconoclasts is the highlight of the book.
Physically, it is not overstating to say that LYDIA CASSATT READING THE MORNING PAPER is a beautiful little gem of a novella, illustrated as it is with small reproductions of the paintings at issue.
on December 7, 2002
Harriett Scott Chessman's prose moves with the deceptive beauty of a ballet dancer, its weightless grace diverting attention from the muscularity powering every gesture. Nothing is squandered, as this wisp-thin novel offers up more sharp-eyed observation and insight than books five times its girth.
Consider the narrator's description of Edgar Degas, whom she likens to a dog. "He bit into subjects --- the foolishness of one artist or another, the insipidity of someone's latest effort, I can't remember --- all the while his eyes lit on things in our apartment, with an air of studying and maybe breaking them: the tea set, the Japanese vase on the mantel, me."
LYDIA CASSATT READING THE MORNING PAPER is a fictionalized story based on the relationship between the American impressionist painter Mary Cassatt and her sister, Lydia, who narrates the story. The novel revolves around sessions in which Lydia poses for her sister. Lydia, 41, is dying of Bright's disease. On a good day, sitting and holding a newspaper while Mary paints her is physically exhausting. On a bad day, getting out of bed would be an impossible trick.
Mary, seven years her junior, is on the cusp of realizing her creative ambitions, having been accepted as the only woman in the inner circle of late 19th Century impressionists who were stirring up Paris and the art world.
These sisters savor their time together because they deeply love each other and they know they'll soon be parted. Much goes unspoken. The younger sister avoids acknowledging that Lydia has little time left and the older woman doesn't force the conversation. They communicate through the work. "I was sick again this morning, and May (Lydia refers to her sister by this nickname throughout) looked discouraged as she helped me wash my face and get dressed. I wonder whether this will be May's last picture of me. I think May wonders this too, because there's a new quietness between us. She's intensely focused on her work, and she paints for a long time without a pause."
The third and only other significant character in the book is Degas. In real life, Degas was Lydia's close friend and mentor. They may or may not have been lovers. In Chessman's novel, there is a romance, though it is only glimpsed through Lydia's observations. "He touched the nape of May's neck. He caressed her for a moment and she leaned into him." Such passages poignantly capture Mary's combination of tender joy for her sister, curiosity and yearning for a type of love that she knows is only in her past. The descriptions of Degas are among the best parts of this luminous book. Lydia knows well the famous painter's reputation for cruelty but experiences only kindness and respect from him. She regards him with affection, but is never completely at ease. "...this sensation of being protected from the Cyclops by the Cyclops itself, while he eats everyone else in sight --- well, it's fragile at best," Lydia says.
The novel holds no suspense in its plot --- the reader knows the ending from the first page --- but it manages to continually surprise with its startlingly lovely language. There is little in the way of action --- a paintbrush flutters across a canvass, cider spills in the grass. The novel takes on big themes --- the love between sisters, artistic passion, even mortality --- but it does so one tiny, exquisite detail at a time.
--- Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Holt
on July 23, 2002
This very short novella about the famed impressionist Mary Cassatt, is narrated from the uniquely interesting perspective of her unknown and tragically short lived sister who was afflicted by an illness incurable in those days. Five of Mary's paintings which portray Lydia are chosen and very nicely reproduced in this small neatly compact volume. Each becomes the focus of a chapter. There is no real plot or action or suspense. Instead, reading each of these five introspective chapters mimics the act of really contemplating a work of art. The art lover will particularly enjoy and learn from Chessman's descriptions of the paintings and the way she relates them to Lydia's illness. Overall the amount of biographical information revealed about the Cassatts is relatively small. For example we learn Mary would outlive Lydia and go on to paint for 30 more years-but not that she would suffer the tragedy of blindness in her later years. The book will leave the reader eager to know more and to view Mary's work.
on February 26, 2002
Lydia Cassatt (1837-82) was the older sister of the avant-garde American-born Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). This lovely novella, 'Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper' by Harriet Scott Chessman, is set in Paris and its environs in the late 1870s to early 1880s and recreates a fictional portrayal of their life en famille and with close friends like Edgar Dégas, the French Impressionist. Because it was the time of the Impressionist exhibitions in Paris, there are mentions of other artists such as Gustave Caillebotte, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Berthe Morisot. Lydia often posed for Mary, which she found to be 'a form of enchantment.' Afflicted with Bright's disease, a fatal disease of the kidneys, Lydia endured much pain and weakness to sit still while her sister painted her. Through the use of internal monologue in a stream-of-consciousness Impressionistic style, Ms. Chessman allows the reader to experience the passing thoughts, memories, and reflections of Lydia. Lydia had remained an unmarried woman because her fiancé had been killed in the Civil War. Mary (called May) was also unmarried, through choice, because she did not wish to compromise her artistic career with marriage and motherhood.
Included in the pages of this novella are five beautiful color plates of paintings of Lydia by Mary Cassatt. Each of the five short chapters contains almost a meditation on each painting. Through the imaginative writing of Ms. Chessman, I learned more about the details of Cassatt's paintings, such as the possible meaning of a scarlet sash in 'Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly' (1880); that there was a pair of Mary's burgundy leather gloves resting on the loom in 'Lydia Seated at a Tapestry Frame' (1880/81); and that the little girl in 'Woman and Child Driving' (1879) was Edgar Dégas's niece. Mary painted the cover portrait of Lydia, 'Woman Reading,' in 1878/79, and the novella gave me a glimpse of what Lydia might have been thinking and feeling while she posed for it. Lydia's preference was to read poetry by Tennyson rather than the Le Journal newspaper that she is holding in this portrait. Mary Cassatt's portraits of Lydia look unposed, so I was somewhat surprised to read about the sessions where the silently suffering Lydia had posed for hours.
This novella has inspired me to view Mary Cassatt's work with a fresh eye. Now looking at the vivacious décolletage portrait of 'Lydia in a Loge, Wearing a Pearl Necklace' (1879), which is not discussed in this book, I might imagine her enjoying a rare night out at the opera, possibly in a happier mood. Lydia was model and muse for Mary, and 'Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper' shows a contemplative reflection of the artist's gaze.
on February 7, 2002
In the tradition of Girl With the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier and Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, Harriet Chessman Scott has fashioned a fictional account of how six of the artist Mary Cassatt's paintings were conceived and then painted. Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Papers also tells of the warm relationship between Mary and her ailing sister and model Lydia. Long an admirer of Mary Cassatt's works, I looked forward to reading this book but unfortunately I never found myself in the Cassatt world as I did with Vermeer's works when I read the books mentioned above.
Lydia Cassatt, the older sister of Mary, is afflicted with Bright's disease a debilitating illness that ultimately leads to death. While Lydia suffers for weeks on end, when she is feeling good, Mary urges her to sit for her paintings. And as Mary paints, Lydia reflects on the artisty of her sister as well as her life filled with family and travels. Lydia also reflects on Mary's relationship with the artist Degas and her younger sisters creative passion for all things both artistic and spiritual.
While reproductions of the actual paintings Lydia sat for are included, the book was never as intersting as imagining what the paintings were all about. This is a rather short novel which I'm afraid didn't shed enough light on Mary Cassatt or her sister. Finally, it didn't leave me with the feeling of doing moreresearch on these women as I did about Vermeer after reading the Chevlaier and Vreeland books.
Art and life. Life and art. The lines pf demarcation aren't' visible in this richly imagined story of the relationship between Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (1847 - 1926) and her older sister, Lydia, who sometimes served as Cassatt's model. Using five of the artist's paintings as springboards the author offers a moving story of courage and creativity, while she renders a fascinating study of the times in which the women lived.
Although suffering painfully, from a terminal illness, Bright's disease, Lydia continues to model for her sister, relentlessly scanning each finished portrait as if it foretold her future. Chessman conceives of Lydia as a study in patience and resignation, imagining that painter Edgar Degas, who often visited the sittings, said to Lydia, "You show me how to live, if only I could do it as you do."
In addition to exploring a unique sibling bond "Lydia Cassatt Reading The Morning Paper" suggests aspects of Cassatt's daring life, hints at a liaison with the dynamic Edgar Degas, and presents thumbnail sketches of her interaction with such artists as Renoir and Caillebotte.
Lydia, we learn, died in 1882 while Cassatt lived to create for over thirty more years.
Rather than a sad reflection on a too short life, Chessman, with pitch-perfect prose, has penned a celebration of family, love, and art.
- Gail Cooke
on January 8, 2002
I picked up this book because I liked the cover and when I discovered it was the fictional story behind five of Mary Cassatt's paintings, I knew I had to read it. I have always loved Cassatt's art and this book tells the story behind the five portraits May painted of her sister Lydia and includes copies of the paintings themselves among the book's pages. Of course this is a work of fiction and comes from Chessman's imagination, but nevertheless, it is a wonderful, beautiful, thoughtful and insightful story of how those portraits may have come to life. It is a short novel (160 pgs) and can be read in one sitting. That is the reason for my 4* review instead of 5. I really enjoyed the story and thought it was wonderfully written, but I felt it could have been a little longer and a few more details could have been revealed. For instance, while Lydia speaks often of her deceased brother, and her earlier lover, there isn't a whole lot of details about them. Also, I'd like to know more about relationship between Lydia and Mary away from the painting. Don't misunderstand - I absolutely LOVED this book. I just would have liked to have continued my reading and now I'm searching for further info about the Cassatts and other writings by Chessman!!!! I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves Mary Cassatt's artwork, who enjoys a wonderful story about sisterhood, or the hopelessly romantic reader - none of you will be let down!!!
on December 11, 2001
Harriet Chessman has written a beautiful novel about an unusual woman: Mary Cassat, the Impressionist painter who lived in Paris, was a lover of Degas, and a fully emancipated woman during a time when woman were assigned either to the bedroom or the kitchen; a woman who prefered her art and her freedom to marriage and conformity. More than that, it is, in fact, a novel about two women: Mary and her favorite model -- her sister Lydia -- who, while fatally ill with Bright's Disease, posed for many of Mary's paintings.
It's such a beautiful and original work on many levels. Each of it's five chapters features a color reproduction of a painting of Lydia, and each painting is a take-off point for the narrator: what she was thinking and feeling, what she was observing about Mary and her friends, and what she felt about the dichotomy of mortality of the flesh and the immortality of the paintings.
on June 5, 2002
If you aren't one of the many who adore Mary Cassatt's paintings, this book won't interest you at all. If it did not include lovely reproductions of five Lydia paintings, and if it were entirely fictional-not based on carefully research about the Cassatts, their friends, and the setting, it would not be much of a read. I found myself looking at the prints repeatedly; Chessman elucidates the paintings in ways that empower both Cassatt's artistry and the relationship between the sisters that the author develops. It is a slight book in length, and often reads like a creative writing exercise (research a historical figure and write a story in the first person based on your findings), but there are moving, human glimpses of a moment or two in time, and if the book leads more people to examine Cassatt with deeper appreciation of her art, then it has served its purpose.
on September 10, 2002
I was a huge fan of Tracy Chevalier's "Girl with a Pearl Earring", so I was most interested to read Harriet Chessman's novel about Mary Cassatt and her sister Lydia - the inspiration for many of her impressionist paintings. Chessman's style is elegant, and spare, and she limns a portrait as lovingly as Cassatt painted Lydia. If I have any criticism, it's that I wished the novel had a broader scope - it covers a very brief period when Cassatt and her family lived in Paris. I wanted to know more about the family before they came to Europe, and how at that time in history a woman was able to rise to such prominence in the epicenter of the birth of modern art. Chessman is an accomplished writer, and yet the book is not as deeply felt as it could be, perhaps because of its brevity. Still, it is a tale well worth the telling, and a pleasure to read.