How did you choose this subject of Lydia Cassatt posing for her sister?
I loved Mary Cassatt’s art; originally, when I was teaching at Yale, I hoped to write a more art historical interpretation of Cassatt. Once I started to write fiction, though, the thought of a novel centering on her art started to take shape. A writer always has to find the best gate into a landscape of material, though, and I experimented with quite a few gates – various voices, different times and figures in Mary Cassatt’s life – until I settled on Lydia’s first person voice.
The character of Lydia Cassatt enticed and challenged me. So little had been written about this older sister of the famous painter; I couldn’t find a letter in Lydia’s voice, and I knew of no diaries or other materials. What I had were the paintings themselves, beautiful, contemplative, and suggestive of the relationship between these two sisters. I thought, how wonderful to write from the perspective of the model, when the painter is the model’s sister. I enjoyed figuring out a fictional position that was at first glance more marginal, more modest, because this freed me to create something fresh.
Adding to all this was the fact of Lydia’s illness with Bright’s disease. I wondered, how would Lydia have felt, to pose for her ambitious younger sister when she knew her own life would be cut short? It seemed courageous and fascinating.
How are Mary’s pictures of Lydia unusual? How do they compare with other paintings of women by Impressionist painters?
Mary Cassatt creates a numinous and contemplative space around this figure. In the five paintings I include in this novel, she allows Lydia to be on her own in all but one, and to be engaged in something absorbing: reading, embroidering. In “Tea,” Lydia holds a cup of tea and might be imagined to be in conversation with someone outside the picture frame, yet she is also on her own.
Cassatt had extraordinary respect for her subjects. She resisted the more usual decorativeness or sexual lusciousness involved in female subjects, the sense in which they are posing for the (primarily male) beholder’s sake. Cassatt creates the impression that the woman in the painting isn’t aware of us, looking at her; the point of the painting has nothing to do with the usual presentation of a woman to the viewer’s eye. In this, Cassatt created an unusually safe, quiet space for Lydia, as for the mothers and children of the later paintings and prints. I think of Cassatt as a fiercely feminist painter, figuring out alternate ways of seeing and imagining women, well before her time.
Your epigraph is “The imperfect is our paradise.” Do you think your story shows this idea?
Lydia has to come to terms with the imperfections inherent in her life, as all of us must. In my imagining of her life, she lost her fiancé in the Civil War; she had to accept a life filled with caring for her parents and her nieces and nephews, offering her services to her family, while remaining a fairly marginal figure in the world at large; and she was diagnosed with a debilitating disease of the kidneys, at the age of forty.
Yet, as Wallace Stevens suggests in “The Poems of Our Climate” (see below), although a “composed” art can be beautiful, it can’t satisfy the passionate restlessness of our “vital I.” It’s important and necessary to write the poem, and live the life, in the here and now, in the heat of the moment, “flawed words and stubborn sounds,” no matter how composed the poem or life looks afterward.
Something I really tried to get at in this novel was the odd distance between the painting, as beautiful and composed as Stevens’ still life of “clear water in a brilliant bowl, / Pink and white carnations,” and the actual life. My character Lydia is confronted with this distinction constantly, and she has to make her peace with it. She will grow more ill and die, even as Mary’s images of her remain “simplified,” lucid, gorgeous.
THE POEMS OF OUR CLIMATE
Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations – one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
How much of this book is true?
I researched the lives of the Cassatt family quite thoroughly, with the help of many books and articles, especially Nancy Mowll Mathews’ biography Mary Cassatt, a wonderful volume of selected letters between the Cassatts and others, and the catalogue for Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman, the exhibition of Cassatt’s oeuvre organized by Judith A. Barter. As much as possible, I grounded the story in facts. The elder Cassatts and Lydia did come to live with Mary in Paris in the late 1870s; Lydia did pose for many of Mary’s oils between 1878 and 1881, just as Mary’s art was in an intense period of growth into Impressionism; Lydia had Bright’s disease; Mary had a strong professional and personal relationship with many artists in Paris, including Louisa May Alcott’s sister May Alcott (who indeed did die of complications from childbirth) and Edgar Degas. Degas did often come to tea at the Cassatt residence, as a close family friend; Mary and Edgar did work shoulder to shoulder on prints one winter, in an effort to create a book of prints, a project that in fact was shelved because of Edgar’s dissatisfaction with it.
I could go on and on with this list of facts. Jennifer Boittin, then a graduate student in History at Yale University, offered invaluable help in this research.
What I made up: the thoughts and the nature of each of the characters; all the scenes and conversations; the intimation of a sexual relationship, however brief, between Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas (although I believe, for various reasons, that this was in fact eminently possible!); the letter Lydia writes to Mary; the particular embroidery Lydia does; Lydia’s personal history. Whatever I show, in other words, of Lydia’s actual life, past and present, is fictional; yet it’s solidly grounded in information I gathered about her world and her family.
Did you see these paintings in person?
Yes, I had the chance to see the exhibition Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman when it traveled to the Met in New York. At that point, I had written a draft of most of the novel, and I was relieved and excited to discover that my sense of Lydia and Mary held up, as I stood in front of these stirring paintings, and saw them in the larger context of a lifetime of Mary’s art.