Chapter One: Woman Reading
Paris, septembre 1878
“Could you model for me tomorrow, Lyd?”
May’s looking at me with a kind of urgency and hopefulness. I’ve been showing her some new dress patterns, as we linger at the table after breakfast. She looks sweet for a moment, and worried, and I say, “I think so.”
“Mother thinks it will make you too tired.”
“Yes, I do,” calls Mother, from her room.
“N’importe quoi. I’m so much better now.”
I drink my coffee, picturing the walk to May’s studio. It’s only a few streets away, just off the place Pigalle, but I haven’t been well, and in any case I’ve become attached to this perch, our apartment on avenue Trudaine, in the gème arrondissement. We’re in Paris, and yet we’re also in our own world, five stories up; we’ve become a bit like a nation, The Cassatt Nation, small and besieged, at times, and independent. In the kitchen, the new maid Lise is clattering the dishes. Father rustles the paper in the parlor; he’s been reading us bits out of Le Petit Parisien.
I rise to look out the window. Over the tops of the apartments across from us, I see the white and cream buildings scrambling up the hill of Montmartre, among trees and gardens. Looking down to the avenue Trudaine, I see a girl in a royal blue coat and a redhat race along the street with a dog. I’m in love with all of this, this bright and foreign life.
“I could have the carriage brought round, Lyddy.”
“Such a short distance, May! Don’t be silly!”
“The carriage is a good idea,” Mother says, coming into the dining room. She’s wearing her specs and her old white morning gown, with her light wool shawl. How old she’s begun to look, I think.
I know May needs me to model. It’s partly the cost, of course, to hire someone else. To pay a model—well, it adds up, and Father’s at her constantly now about making her way, and covering all of her own expenses, for the studio too. “Think for yourself, May,” he said this morning, as we sat down to breakfast, “think what this costs us, and tally up your sales this year. Got to consider this.”
I glimpse two young men on the avenue, elegantly dressed, talking and gesturing energetically as they stroll. I open the long window and lean over the small balcon for a moment, to catch a better look. Perhaps May knows them. Maybe they’re on their way to one of the cafés at the place Pigalle, to smoke cigarettes, and drink coffee, and argue about art. I see such men, often, sitting outside a café like Degas’ favorite, Le Rat Mort. Women too go there; sometimes, as I walk with May, I see mothers and grandmothers sitting happily, with pretty children, eating sliced melon or apricot pie.
Once I saw a woman sitting close to a young man. I glimpsed him nuzzling her, kissing her neck, and, before I could look away, I caught the expression on her face, a mixture of coolness and knowledge and pleasure.
“I think I’ll go to the Bois today, give your horse some exercise,” Father says cheerfully to May.
I look over May’s shoulder. She’s studying a pattern I chose at Worth’s, for an evening gown with an off-the-shoulder décolleté.
“It would look delicious on you, in a yellow silk,” I say.
May looks up. I can see she’s studying me with her painter’s eyes. Inwardly, I flinch; I feel shy, always, when someone looks at me. She’s my younger sister, by a full seven years, I remind myself, even if she’s thirty-four now, and yet I feel so much younger than May sometimes. I can’t help wondering what she sees. I’m as plain as a loaf of bread.
As if divining my thoughts, May smiles. She peels an orange with a little knife. “You can look away. You can be reading this time.”
“Ah, yes.” I smile as I sit down across the table from her. May knows me well, for within this Cassatt Nation, my own small acre has treasures of books stashed everywhere, in the elbows of trees, beneath berry bushes, on benches by streams. My little house is composed of books: English and French novels, and books of poetry too, gold-edged, I, who am moderate in so much, who bend myself to family life, am most immoderate once I’m in my acre. I read for hours, with passion, ardently wishing the stone wall around me to hold, the little gate to feel the pressure of no hand, the latch to grow rusty.
“I wish we had brought more of that honey back to Paris from the country,” Mother says, her specs slipping down her nose. She’s writing a list for Lise’s shopping today.
“I’m sure we can find good honey somewhere in Paris,” May says drily. “You didn’t have any orange this morning, Lyddy, did you?” she asks, holding out a section of hers. The peelings make a sphere on her plate.
I accept the orange sliver.
“Maybe you can just do the back of my head,” I suggest.
“Mais non, Lyddy. I want your lovely face.”
She looks at me teasingly, and for a moment I am riding in the country again, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It’s early spring, snow still on the ground in places, and we must have been back from our long stay in Europe for a year or so. We had buried Robbie in Germany. I picture myself riding with Aleck and his friend from Yale, Thomas Houghton. The day is chilly, and, once we’ve dismounted, I take off my gloves and rub my hands together, holding them to my mouth. Thomas is close to me. “Cold?” he asks, catching my hands in his, chafing, bringing them halfway to his mouth.
“How about a profile?” May asks.
“If it helps you out, May, yes.”
“You’re helping me immensely. We’ll begin tomorrow morning.”
I think of the quiet day tomorrow would have been, West Chester swirled away into the past now, along with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, my life a new one here in Paris, talking to Mother and Father, reading a novel, looking through my patterns, hoping through it all to make some miraculous leap out of my condition, to become healthy again. I contemplate the slow descent down five flights to the avenue, and the slow walk by May’s side, through a late September morning. I prefer the longer journey, along avenue Trudaine to the park at the place d’Anvers, because of the trees, the green island. Then up we walk to the busy boulevard de Rochechouart and the boulevard de Clichy, coming at last to the place Pigalle, my body increasingly assaulted and aroused by a myriad of things: the trolleys, the laborers, the shop assistants, the pavements in front of cafés still damp from being washed, the scent of coffee and bread, and of manure too.
“Tomorrow morning, yes,” I say, feeling worried but brave, and picturing my little boat, leaks and all, bobbing along in the wake of my sister’s grander vessel, sailing to Heaven knows where.
I sink into the plump green chair in May’s studio, holding the paper.
After breakfast this morning, Mother asked me a dozen times if I really felt well enough, demanding that May paint only for an hour, or at most two. As I put on my bonnet and gloves, Father too began to fret. “Are you warm, Lyddy?” he asked. “Make sure she stands up to stretch, at least every half-hour, May.” Then he called to Lise to “bring Mademoiselle Cassatt’s slippers, and—what about a small pillow?” After all this fuss, as always, I questioned the entire idea of modeling. If I became exhausted before I arrived at the door of our apartment, how could I possibly think of helping May?
I listen to the city’s constant clatter and clamor outside the windows of May’s studio, and I think of the shops we passed this morning, so much more seductive, even in this gritty district, than those I remember in the States. Each shop window lures me with something delicious or fine: prâlines, cut flowers, linens and silks. “It makes America look pretty bare, doesn’t it?” May said to me last week, and she’s right, in a sense. Certainly shops like the ones near the new Opéra and the Tuileries amaze the wealthiest of our American friends. All of them flock to the Bon Marché too, and the other grands magasins, filled, layer after layer, like the inside of wedding cakes, with things to buy. Philadelphia can’t compare, and yet I sometimes miss those modest shops. Something appeals to me in restraint.
Le Petit Journal becomes absurdly heavy in my hands, and my arms ache. I’ve read all the articles, and editorial opinions, and advertisements too, and now I’m wishing I had my book. “Women are always pictured reading books,” May said, as we set up this morning. “A newspaper is perfect. And what could be better than Le Petit Journal? It’s so modern. It shows you’re a thinking woman.” I yearn, though, for the novel I began yesterday and left sitting on my bed—Madame Bovary. I’m reading it for the second time, and I relish it even more now than I did when I was younger.
As I pose, I remember how Mother loved sitting for her portrait last spring. She would make light of her contribution—”All I do is lounge in a soft chair and read the paper,” she’d say, waving her hand—but she would seem happier than usual, as if she had been granted a second life in the studio, more carefree, more glamorous, than this one. Father’s irritations and demands seemed to reach her only through a haze. “Yes, my dear,” she would say happily, “I’ll be sure to come home tomorrow well in time for lunch,” or “Of course I’ll write to Aleck and to Gardner tomorrow.”
When I first saw Mothers picture, the painting seemed reckless, May’s brushstrokes bold, Mother’s déshabillé a harum-scarum wash of colors. I felt wonder, and jealousy too. This shimmer, this feeling—how under Heaven had she created this? The painting showed Mother, simply herself, with her specs, reading the paper as on any ordinary morning. Yet May had caught a feeling, a whole moment, in paint. It was every bit as striking as Berthe Morisot’s pictures, and more appealing to me than any of the ones I’d seen by May’s other new friends, even Renoir.
How courageous May had become! To paint the ordinary, a woman in her morning dress reading Le Figaro, and to make the picture dance like this, to feel unbound by all the things one had been taught, or by the paintings put up each spring at the Salon, so dark and classical. Mother praised Mays painting in her offhand manner—”Lovely light, don’t you think, Lyddy, and look how May used the mirror!”—but I knew she felt proud.
Around the rectangle of Le Petit Journal, the parquet floors of May’s studio shine. I can see the edge of one of her Turkish rugs, the rose and gray one, in intricate patterns. My arms and shoulders feel sore.
“A cup of tea, Lyddy?”
“I’ve made you pose for over an hour. Mother would be furious.”
As I put the newspaper down, tiny pinpricks run into my fingers. The little gold hands on the clock above the mantel say half past ten.
May moves about the studio with her usual quickness. She darts, like a bird, She’s slender, almost too thin, really. As she opens the tin of tea, I think of Mother, when she was younger and healthier, making tea for us on Sundays, wherever we lived, and I picture May too, as a little girl on a pony, her face stubborn and shining. “Let me try,” she’s saying to Aleck and me, as Robbie looks on from the gate. She’s four or so, and I must be about eleven, Aleck nine, and how old would Robbie be? Seven? We’re in the meadow by our country house, Hardwicke, before our move to Philadelphia. Aleck and I love to jump our horses, small jumps. The meadow at Hardwicke’s just been mown, and the ground is uneven. Robbie swings on the gate, and “Let me try,” she says again. “You’re too little,” Aleck says, but in a moment she’s in the air, her small figure rising inches above her pony’s back, and soon she’s jumping, again, and again, and Aleck shouts, “Good jumping, Mame!” and I shout, “Careful!” I’m angry with her, because she never listens. At dinner that night, when I begin to tell the story, May and Robbie interrupt, and then Father says she should bare lessons with us if she’s so bent on jumping.
As May brings me my tea, she reminds me of a mermaid; something about her floats, skims the waves. For a moment I wonder what it would be like to be an artist. How does a woman make such a choice? Or is it something that comes to one, like a gift from heaven?
“Et bien, you look thoughtful, Lyd.”
I smile, brushing the air in front of my nose as if to say, It’s nothing. Sipping my tea, walking about May’s studio, I study some of her pictures a woman holding out a treat for a dog, a woman reading, sketches of Mother by the lamp at home. I come upon one of May’s self-portraits too, the little gouache on paper, and think how much more striking it is than some of the other pictures, and how odd she looks in it, not quite like herself. She appears serious and jaunty, leaning hard into a green cushion. Her dress is lovely, the white one Madame Ange made for her, but her face looks sad, and stubborn too.
Bold she is, and not like other women.
“Do you like this one?” May is at my shoulder.
“I do. Well, `like’ may not be the right word.”
“I find it formidable.”
“Well, I don’t mind being formidable!” May slips her arm through mine.
“Yes, and I admire the dress too.”
“You helped me find the material for that dress, Lyddy, tu te souviens?”
It occurs to me that May has in this self-portrait an air of someone looked at—looked at by someone else, I mean, and not me, or Mother. I think of Degas. She’s with him so much now, and certainly she admires his painting immensely, and she’s learned from him, about color, and angle, and brushwork, and capturing the ordinary life.
The picture holds more than all this, though; it’s as if May painted it as he looked over her shoulder.
As I sink into the green chair again, taking up le journal, May says, “You look splendid today, you know, Lyd.”
“Thank you. Maybe it’s your eyes.”
“Mais non, anyone would agree with me, Lyddy. You’ve always been beautiful.”
As I find my pose, I think about how, when I first met Degas, he gave me the impression of an intelligent but fierce dog—well-dressed and utterly comme il faut, but a dog nonetheless. He bit into subjects—the foolishness of one artist or another, the insipidity of someone’s latest effort, I can’t remember—and 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. I felt sure that if I opened my mouth, he would pounce. It’s a kind of brutality.
And yet, something else emerged as he asked me questions. “Had I begun to feel better?” he asked, and “What was I reading?” When I told him, “Jane Austen,” he looked curious. “Ah, lequel?” “Persuasion,” I said, and then, surprisingly, his eyes lit on mine. A feeling connected us, quickly and with an absorbing depth. I wondered what he felt. In allowing myself to look at his face, which had seemed so arrogant and almost ugly a moment before, I discovered a sadness, maybe, or a sense of pain. It was as if I had rounded a corner, in a strange city, and had come upon a scene of terrible intimacy: a man weeping, a child ill. Yet, before I could think of something to say, the city rose up before me again, with its elegant avenues and public spaces, its overwhelming buildings, looming, sharp-edged.
I wonder about May, for she seems to welcome his presence. Certainly, he seems to have made of her—and of me too—an exception, and yet this sensation of being protected from the Cyclops by the Cyclops himself, while he eats everyone else in sight—well, it’s fragile at best. And he does eat people, I know, one friend after another.
And yet I could see what he meant to her, from the beginning. His invitation to her, a year ago, to join his group of Independents, came to her as an invitation to live, to create the art she knew she could create. Her whole desire now is to have her début in the Impressionist Exhibition this spring.
At tea, on that first meeting, I saw something else. In the air between him and May, I sensed something bright and resonant. She smiled, and he bent toward her.
In May’s studio, my arms ache again. May and I have been quiet for some time. I catch myself almost sleeping when May’s voice cuts into the drowsy air.
“I might go to the Louvre this afternoon, Lyddy. Could you come too?”
“I’d love to, if I feel able.”
“We could look at the Dutch collection again.”
“Maybe May Alcott will come with us. We can go by carriage, and fetch her.”
May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s sister, is married to a Swiss man now, so we see her much less, but I welcome our outings with her, and with our young and wealthy friend Louisine Elder. To go about Paris with this small crowd makes me feel young and careless, or, as careless as I can be.
Love comes, or illness. Last summer, my life changed, all in a day. After asking me questions, with his little pince-nez glittering, the doctor took May and Father aside to discuss my situation. Mother was ill then. When May returned to my room, her face a map of worry, I knew in a moment how bad it was, and I knew too how she would fight this truth, how everyone would fight it. I could not hear all of her words, because the world seemed to become unreal, as if I were miles away, looking through the small end of a telescope, just as I used to do with Robbie’s when he got a toy one for Christmas one winter at Hardwicke. I would sit in the window seat, behind the curtains, and point the instrument out to the meadow, and at first I could see the horses so clearly that I could watch the breath coming out of their nostrils, and then I’d turn the telescope around, and suddenly the meadows, and the road, and May’s snow castle, and the flower garden—dry sticks in snow now—would become tiny, a perfect miniature. Only this time, when May spoke, the miniature held her and me and my bed, in my room in Paris, and all around the world had vanished, and I felt myself too to have no substance, but to be made of air. Pain and air.
“Brights Disease,” she said, and I almost laughed, thinking how ridiculous that a disease of the kidneys should be associated in any way with brightness. “But, Lyddy, even a French doctor can be wrong. We must simply watch your diet, and keep you well rested. That’s all there is to it. You must simply be careful.”
But how can carefulness make this all right? It’s not up to me. Heaven knows, I’m nothing if not careful. This illness is inside me. I feel that I live on a plank jutting out over an ocean filled with sea monsters. Sometimes I think I’m better. But maybe it’s just that a pavilion has been created around my little plank, right by this ocean, sea monsters or no, and so much goes on in it—jugglers, singers, romance—that I am merely distracted and amused.
“Lyddy, did you hear me?”
“Désolée, I must be daydreaming.”
“I can tell! I have to pull you back, Lyd, right back into that chair. You left me quite alone there, for a few minutes. Where did you travel to?”
I smile. “Oh, well, I go anywhere I wish, May: Pennsylvania, Germany …”
“Actually, I was probably thinking simply about our apartment, and lunch.”
“Lunch can be an absorbing subject, I know.”
“Yes, and that pattern for a new gown.”
“Another absorbing subject.”
I can’t always tell May my thoughts, because she can’t bear to face illness or death. My whole family’s like that.
I think May’s sadness, when she heard my diagnosis, was increased by her memory of earlier sorrows. The doctor, even, may have reminded her of other doctors, like the fat German one in Darmstadt, who looked at Robbie’s legs, and told us there was nothing seriously wrong with him. All we had to do, he said, was to make Robbie exercise with regularity, and take some medicine to strengthen his bones. For awhile we could all look at each other as if the world were an ordinary place.
But if something comes to someone, and makes of their body a house to waste and gnaw at, doctors can do nothing, and love can do nothing either. The baby, George, died too, only a month old, when May was just beginning to walk, and, before I was born, the baby girl, Katherine, named for Mother. Once the youngest, Gardner, came into the world, three years after George, I could hardly bear to look at him, for fear he too would be still and cold.
“I think that’ll do for today,” May says. I can tell she’s pleased with her start.
I rouse myself, and shake off my thoughts. To be in May’s studio, now, in Paris, and not in Darmstadt, or in Pennsylvania either—to have come this far—well, it’s lucky.
“May I seep” I ask.
“It’s only a start,” she says, and I look at a swath of white paint—the fichu around my shoulders—and the beginnings of a woman’s face, in profile, the nose and mouth painted with delicacy, the eye a darker line, and a sketchy band of brown for her hair, whitish-pink broad strokes for her cap.
Something about this woman, half-suggested in oil, makes me bend toward her. Who is this? I ask myself, for I can’t think it’s me, and yet I know, with exquisite pleasure, that it is.
As I sit in my armchair, reading Flaubert, later, the image of this woman, the one May is painting, comes to me again and again. I discover a yearning to be close to her, to be present as she comes closer to the surface. It’s like watching someone swim toward you, only it’s much slower, and you see her at first underwater, a moving blur, and you wait for the moment when you’ll see her arms, and then her face, her hair streaming wet in the light.
I could never confess this to anyone, and I can barely even think it, but I’m aware too of another sensation, the feeling of May’s eyes on me, as she painted this morning. Do other women have such feelings? It isn’t that I feel beautiful. It isn’t something outward or visible, really, at all.