Oliveira (My Name is Mary Sutter, 2011) draws from research and imagination to recreate the years when two impressionists—Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas—engaged in an on-again, off-again relationship.
Cassatt, the daughter of well-to-do Philadelphians, is a determined woman whose first stay in Paris is interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War. Following her return and mild success with portraiture, she’s ready to pack her brushes and leave France behind a second time after her submission to the Paris Salon exhibition is rejected. However, an arranged meeting with admirer Degas and his invitation to exhibit with a group of independent artists are all the incentives Cassatt needs to stay. Although the relationship is often contentious, and Degas’ promises leave much to be desired, Degas introduces Cassatt to his inner circle of friends, a socially prominent group that includes writer Émile Zola and artists Édouard Manet and his paramour, Berthe Morisot, who’s married to Manet’s brother, Eugene. Degas, frustrated with increasingly poor eyesight and possessing a cruel and insensitive demeanor, becomes Cassatt’s mentor and, at times, tormentor. Often at odds, they send missives back and forth. Cassatt discovers a passion for vivid colors and embarks upon a productive period painting women and children; Degas studies the human form and strives to replicate his observations in his paintings and other renderings of ballerinas. Although sometimes they’re completely alienated, they remain linked through their art and (although Degas is almost loath to admit it) love. The book is accomplished and well-researched, but the relationship between Cassatt and Degas isn’t as engaging as the secondary story: the love affair between Morisot and Manet.
Readers may come away with little understanding of what made Cassatt and Degas click; nevertheless, they’ll gain a better understanding of impressionism.