Shaded with intimations of mortality, a second novel touches tenderly on the relationship between Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (1844?–1926) and her ailing older sister Lydia. Chessman (Ohio Angels, 1999) uses five of Cassatt’s paintings and their circumstances to shape her story.
Lydia, who suffers both from Bright’s disease and from twinges of remorse at a life less fulfilled than her free-spirited sister’s, is happy to pose for May (Mary) when asked and when able: most importantly, it gives the sisters time to enjoy the closeness they’ve long shared. For May, Lydia is both confidante and protector, possessed of a calm and sensible demeanor that the artist admires and relies upon. For Lydia, May is the one who, with enviable fullness, is truly experiencing this life of theirs in Paris of the late 1870s. In addition to her admiration for May’s bohemian ways and the growing luster of her artistic reputation, May’s friend Edgar Degas, who visits their sittings frequently and with whom May is increasingly intimate, reminds Lydia of her own romantic possibilities, lost on the battlefields of the Civil War. But Lydia is also mindful of her decline in ways that none of her family, already scarred by several untimely deaths, can acknowledge—not even May, who nurses her sister through one bedridden bout of fever after another and whose paintings of her Lydia scans intensely after they’ve been finished, as if they were telling her future. The artist and her muse move along increasingly separate paths, one to greater renown, the other to more debilitating illness, but each in her heart knows how much she has gained from the other.
A moving and intensely introspective portrait of the way art is created and life relinquished.