‘I Always Loved You’: the flames of an artistic passion
Seattle-area author Robin Oliveira’s new novel, “I Always Loved You,” is based on the friendship between painter Mary Cassatt and artist Edgar Degas. Oliveira will read Feb. 4 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., and Feb. 5 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “I Always Loved You” will appear at these area locations: at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com). She will also read at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com).
‘I Always Loved You’
by Robin Oliveira
Viking, 337 pp., $27.95
Before she died, the American painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) burned all the letters that the French artist Edgar Degas had written to her; she had already retrieved and burned, upon his death, all of her letters to him. Seattle-area novelist Robin Oliveira has used these small fires to imagine an intense friendship within the Impressionist circle of painters in Paris.
In her absorbing second novel (“My Name Is Mary Sutter” came out in 2010), Oliveira boldly risks using these well-known historical figures as characters in pursuit of artistic lives not at all assured of fame or fortune. In smart and supple prose that eschews melodrama and wears its research lightly, Oliveira shows a deep understanding of art history and artistic process, and of Paris in the 1870s.
Not primarily a love story, the relationship of Cassatt and Degas begins before they are introduced by a mutual friend in 1877 at the crowded Salon de Paris art show. They have admired each other’s work for years.
Although she has exhibited there previously, Mary’s submissions have been rejected, and Degas, who refuses to submit to the Salon’s traditional and academic judgment, is delighted. Monsieur Degas invites Mademoiselle Cassatt to join him and Manet, Morisot, Renoir, Pissarro and others in a rival exhibit. No mere invitation, this is a “you’re with me or you’re against me” moment, for Degas won’t allow anyone who exhibits with the Salon to show with him.
Since Mary refuses to return to Philadelphia, her family joins her in Paris. Oliveira’s rendering includes the characters of Mary’s beloved sister Lydia, her outspoken mother and practical father, and domestic scenes such as the family digesting the reviews of the carping French art critics at the breakfast table. But the focus is squarely on Mary, working on unfinished paintings, washing her brushes, reeking of turpentine, collaborating with Degas on a journal of etchings, thinking about “the essential talent of seeing.” Mary Cassatt comes alive as disciplined, socially acute, outspoken and stoic in facing down her self-doubt.
Degas is tempestuous, sardonic and witty. At dinner with the Cassatt family, he retorts to Mary’s father, a profit-minded Philadelphia banker who says he may take up painting, “My dear Monsieur Cassatt, you will find that painting is not very difficult when you don’t know how, but that it’s very difficult when you do.” But alone, Degas suffers from doubt about his work because he is “not gifted, is not prescient, he is not an auteur, he is only a draftsman, a servant, a plodding poseur.”
The narrative dramatizes the lives of the Impressionists: soirees, feuds, affairs, and the sacrifices of impecunious artists who resent having to please paying patrons with commissioned work.
Near the end of her life, Mary reflects on Degas’ “savage vitality, his mirthless savoir-faire, his ruthless devotion to principles no one else believed in.” The renunciation of their love for each other, in the service of their art, is heartbreaking.
Oliveira’s lively work illuminates these ambitious artists and rings true in the way that the best fiction can. She captures the essence of working one’s art without promise of glory, and reading her work is transporting.
Wingate Packard is an English teacher and freelance writer.