The prolific biographer (Somerset Maugham, 2004, etc.) moves from his familiar journey among writers and actors to the dangerous realm of Impressionist painters.
Meyers’s rambling, four-subject biography promises to illuminate the intimacies of Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. Many have speculated that the two male artists enjoyed sexual as well as artistic relationships with their female disciples, and Meyers wants it to be true. He examines contemporary and modern secondary sources (the two couples’ letters were all burned), recording every connection. Regrettably, he conveys little understanding of precisely why these connections are important in his formulaic trek from anecdote to anecdote. The serial descriptions of paintings are similarly unenlightening. Several works receive new interpretations, but they’re seldom persuasive. Meyers’s reading of Manet’s portrait of his parents as insulting and castigating, for example, contradicts the subjects’ and the artist’s documented pleasure with it. The author oscillates between taking his research at face value and overinterpreting it. Meyer dismisses Morisot’s husband (Manet’s brother) as superficial, on the basis of a letter declaring that he misses his wife’s “lovely chatter and pretty plumage.” As examples of the Morisot family’s malicious snobbery, the author cites two letters written decades apart describing two separate people as fat. He accurately portrays Degas and Cassatt as mercurial, complex people who often changed their minds and temporarily feuded with friends, but Meyers reads these qualities as character flaws. For the most part, he seeks scandal in the personal relationships of the four without finding much of it. While there may have been something illicit between Manet and his sister-in-law, Meyers spends a lot of time outlining his evidence of a sexual connection between Degas and Cassatt, then anticlimactically concludes: not.
Disappointing art history, unrealized scandal.