FIVE NOVELS WRAP THEIR PLOTS AROUND WOMEN DRAWN TO DEGAS
A ROMANCE BETWEEN two famous painters is not easy to find in art history. That’s why novels on the subject have turned to Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. While their relationship is actually uncertain, their acquaintance is well-documented.
They met in Paris during the Belle Époque (the 1870s onward). She was the American woman breaking into the new Impressionist art circles, he the French virtuoso around whom many Impressionist pioneers revolved. Of the two painters, Degas has been the primary topic of romance novels. When Cassatt is not the fictional love interest, other women—patrons or ballerinas—fill that role in the novelist’s mind.
The supposed Cassatt-Degas romance is at the heart of two recent works of fiction. Added to that, three more novels put Degas in romantic entanglements with other women.
■ The fullest novel on a Cassatt-Degas dalliance is Robin Oliveira’s I Always Loved You (2014). It opens with the elderly Mary, eyes fading, thinking back to what might have been.
She first meets Degas at the Paris Salon, the annual art exhibit. He takes interest in her work, visits her studio, and encourages her painting style. A third of the novel is dedicated to the year 1877, when there is much ferment among the Impressionists, and in this we enter the Impressionist world.
Eventually, Cassatt gives Degas her virginity but is never quite sure where it goes from there. As Mary says, “The point is, Edgar, that we don’t know what to do with one another. And I can’t trust you.” He has said they could marry, but that will lead to inconveniences and “boredom.” The most he ever offers is, “I didn’t say I didn’t love you.”
Mary’s career also comes first, especially after her major Paris exhibit. She avoids being “irretrievably entangled” with Degas and later hates him for his anti-Semitism. They are destined to go their own ways because of art, and because of their strong personalities. But in the end she grieves their parting, realizing that “pain was the foundation of art.”
The novel, in fact, is a story of lost love for a few characters. Part of entering this intimate world of the Impressionists is to meet Degas’s friend, Edouard Manet, who is in an awkward marriage, a true story all its own. The male painters are a promiscuous lot (also true history). Manet contracts syphilis and, meanwhile, actually is in love with his brother’s wife, the painter Berthe Morisot.
The story closes with Mary, having become famous, outliving all the other Impressionists, who are dying off in the 1890s. Before she goes, she burns Degas’s letters, thankful at least that he taught her to “paint love.”
■ The Degas-Cassatt relationship takes on an entirely different vantage in Harriet Scott Chessman’s Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper (2001). Lydia is Mary’s older sister by seven years. As Lydia struggles nobly in the Cassatt family home in Paris with a kidney disease, Mary paints her as a model, producing five now-famous works of art.
Chessman plots the story on these five painter-model episodes. The story follows Lydia’s thoughts as she watches her sister rise as a painter. Lydia is also a witness to Mary’s apparent romance with Degas. In her own heart, Lydia imagines her own love affair with Degas. When he looks upon Lydia, she feels beautiful, even important. The same uplift happens as she's surrounded by the five paintings. Some of them became famous at the time—prompting Lydia to protest when these family memories will be sold at the Salon.
Lydia’s illness grows worse. She dies in 1882, and this at the peak of Mary’s success. The story mixes the beauty of art with the laments of life. In her humble crochet, Lydia, too, aspires to create beauty. Still, she cannot avoid comparing herself to Mary, pondering what her own life might have been, struggling to appreciate—in the face of death—what she nevertheless has seen and lived.
In the next two novels, Degas is seen from the viewpoint of young women in the world of the Paris ballet, which Degas visited, sketched, and painted.
■ Dancing for Degas: A Novel (Kathryn Wagner, 2010). Here, the twelve-year-old ballet student Alexandrie, a poor girl risen to success at the Opera Ballet, is a character who inspires many of Degas’s pastels and paintings. In this fictional treatment, the ballet world is a dark place. Parents are greedy and the venue is a swamp of sexual politics. Older ballerinas compete with newcomers. Wealthy men gain access to ballerinas as whores. Alexandrie is attracted to Degas, but he is just as manipulative as the rest. Still, she learns how to survive. The 1870 Franco-Prussian War intervenes. Cézanne and Monet make appearances. The novel features several of Degas’s ballet compositions, reading into them some of his intrigues with the girls. After thirteen years of this, Alexandrie meets an American who will take her away.
■ The Painted Girls (2013) by Cathy Marie Buchanan. This story focuses on Degas’s innovative wax sculpture of a ballerina. Done in a two-thirds scale, it bears a wig of human hair, ballerina bodice, tutu, slippers. Buchanan dramatizes the true facts (which she first saw in a documentary); three indigent Belgian sisters arrive in Paris to survive. One of them, the fourteen-year-old Marie Goethem, works at the Paris Opéra. She gains the attention of Degas. Soon we find her in Degas’s studio, naked and vulnerable, posing for the wax sculpture. Again, here is a story of young women on the brink of prostitution to escape from poverty. In the novel, Marie avoids the snares, despite the coming-on of one wealthy patron. She and her sister support each other. The wax sculpture is also an art historical story: Degas is reaching fame, and its display in 1881 brings an outcry from the critics (only now, in fiction, were are given the story of the model, not just the artwork).
■ While the aforementioned novels are historical, The Art Forger (2012) by B.A. Shapiro glances back at Degas from contemporary Boston. The heroine is a young Boston painter seeking her success in the competitive art market. She makes “copies” of famous works (a copy only being a “forgery” if you attach an illicit signature and try to sell it as authentic).
She is hired to make an “innocent” copy of a Degas painting, and that’s where the excitement begins. In Boston, of course, the theft of paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains a great mystery. In the real event, some Degas drawings were stolen. Novelist Shapiro adds a fictional Degas painting to the cache (indeed, the one being copied). It’s titled After the Bath and is Degas’s painting of Isabella Gardner (naked), founder of the museum.
In addition to the painting, the novel uses fictional love letters between Degas and Gardner to produce their hypothetical romance. The letters, and the sexual politics of the Gardner-Degas tryst, become clues that lead our heroine to find the stolen Degas painting.
It’s no accident that all five novels are written by women for, presumable, a female readership. Romance novels rank top in sales in all fiction. However, the image of male lovers in these Degas novels do not fare well, generally. The feminist edge can be sharp. In the The Art Forger, not only do we have the lusty Isabella Gardner (and the contemporary heroine having aesthetic “orgasms”), the story’s villains are two predatory men who try to thwart our heroine’s art career (though, alternatively, there is a good guy who is gay).