A review of I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

I Always Loved You
by Robin Oliveira
Viking Adult
Hardcover: 352 pages, February 4, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0670785797

If you love the Impressionists, are interested in Belle Epoque Paris, and are curious about the motivation and struggles of artists, particularly women artists, I Always Loved You, (Viking, 2014, ISBN 978-0-670-78579-7) is a novel you will enjoy. The forty year relationship between Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Edgar Degas, (1834-1917) is the subject of Robin Oliveira’s latest novel. Both artists were associated with the Impressionists, who went outside the Paris art establishment, L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, with its annual juried “Salon” show, to win acceptance for their non-traditional paintings.
Presenting the story from multiple points of view, mainly Cassatt’s and Degas’s, Oliveira gives us insights into creative minds. Her research included library sources like biographies and letters. She also visited Impressionist haunts in Paris and viewed items from Degas’s studio at the Musee d’Orsay.
The prologue to I Always Loved You shows elderly, famous Mary Cassatt rereading Degas’s letters and reflecting on their relationship. The first chapter begins in 1877 with Mary and another American artist, Abigail May Alcott, attending the Impressionists’ third exhibition, in a Paris apartment. At that stage, Mary was not an Impressionist, though she was interested in their work. In 1872, she’d had a painting accepted for exhibit in the Salon show, an immense honour for a woman and an American, but after that, nothing she submitted was selected.
Mary knows that her art is technically competent, but feels that it lacks “transcendence.” Looking for a new approach, she is particularly interested in the work of Berthe Morisot, the sister-in-law of Edouard Manet and the only woman in the Impressionist show. Mary has seen and admired some Edgar Degas paintings in shops, and wants to see more of his work, to “discover his secret.”
Suddenly it was clear to Mary in a way it hadn’t been before, that these artists were playing more than they were working, playing at exposing some vision of life that defied convention, exuberant in a way that her painting was not… weighted down as she was by the Salon’s censorious rule. Nor were these paintings amateur… Instead, they were lively, inviting, celebratory.
After the American Civil War, many young American women went to study art in Paris, as an accomplishment, part of their “finishing”, not as a serious career. Mary Cassatt was different; from age fifteen, when she persuaded her parents to enrol her in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, she wanted to make art her life’s work. In 1866, when the war was over, she moved to Paris. Since women could not attend L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, she studied privately with one of the professors. The French art scene was in a state of transition, with artists such as Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas trying to break away from the stiff, classical Ecole des Beaux Arts style.
In 1870, at the start of the Franco-Prussian War, Cassatt returned to the U.S. “But the Philadelphia homecoming,” writes Oliveira, “rather than being a triumph, had turned out to be an endurance test of head tilts, nods and condescension.” The Philadelphia galleries rejected her paintings, so she took them to Chicago, only to have them destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. She returned to France in the fall of 1871, but achieves no break-throughs and is ready to go home in defeat in 1877. Then she and Degas meet.
According to Oliveira, at the Impressionist exhibition, Degas glimpses a striking woman in a blue skirt and white blouse, and later learns that it is Cassatt, of whom he has heard. He persuades a mutual acquaintance to bring him to her studio. When Mary asks him if talent is a divine spark, a gift, he replies that “the sublime is the result of discipline.” Examining her canvases, he says that the “loose brushstrokes, the play in the rendering of the silk, the way you capture the light. That’s what the [Salon] jury hated… and it’s the best thing in the painting.”  He invites Cassatt to exhibit with the Impressionists next year:
You will no longer have to subject yourself to the parsimonious Salon jury, you will paint what you wish to paint; you will show what you want to show.
Ten years Cassatt’s senior, Degas has his own worries. He suffers from a black spot in his eye which turns out to be macular degeneration, which worsens, leaving him blind in his old age. He has been working hard organizing the Impressionist exhibitions, eight between 1874 and 1886, and producing work of his own to show. During the Franco-Prussian War he served in the National Guard, and afterwards, in 1872-3, he visited his relatives in New Orleans. His father’s death in 1874 led to the revelation that his brother’s business debts were so huge as to wipe out the brothers’ inheritance with money still owing. After paying these debts, Degas’s sole income was from his art. His misfortunes made him aloof and difficult.
Like most people in the arts, he constantly encounters philistines, an annoyance that Oliveira captures in a scene in which Mary invites Edgar to dine with her family.  (Her parents and younger sister moved to Paris in 1877.) Robert Cassatt, a retired stockbroker, quizzes Degas about his finances, and says, “Maybe I’ll take up painting in my spare time. I have nothing else to do.”
“You will find that painting is not very difficult when you don’t know how,” replies Degas,  “but that it’s very difficult when you do…Perhaps we could exchange occupations. I could go into stocks. Would an hour of instruction from you suffice to prepare me? That seems plenty for such a straightforward endeavour.”
Until she starts using them as models, Mary’s family interferes with her art. Several areas of suspense keep the reader turning the pages. Will her father’s negative attitude persist? Can a creative career be enough for a woman who has decided to remain single and devote herself to her art, especially when the career isn’t really progressing? Will Cassatt’s friendship with Degas ever blossom into more?
Two other characters’ lives contrast with Mary’s. Berthe Morisot, who advises Mary to “own herself” and not rely on Degas, is racked by love and guilt. She was once involved with Edouard Manet, who is married and a womanizer, and then married his younger brother, Eugene, a kind but obtuse man. Gossip still links her name to Edouard. When she has a baby with Eugene, she finds that the demands of motherhood conflict with those of art. Abigail May Alcott, sister of the famous author of Little Women, is a sufficiently accomplished artist to be accepted for the Salon show, but when she marries she all but gives up her art, and then dies in childbirth. Cassatt, who followed a non-traditional path, survived and achieved fame and money through her art.
Other women in the novel suffer in various ways. Degas takes home a fourteen year old ballet dancer from the Opera to pose for him, but other men waiting in the wings want the young dancers for sex.
 …The petits rats, the scampering girls vying for a place in the ballet corps, their mothers peering over their shoulders and sitting through rehearsals, pushing them to succeed so that their families could eat, ignoring the desires of the men who in the evening took the girls home with them, and perhaps fed them before consuming then, and who, if things worked out, might one day fall in love with them and take the girls off their parents’ hands.
A mutual revelation between Berthe Morisot and Edouard Manet shows two frequent consequences of romantic involvement. She tells him she’s pregnant; he tells her he has syphilis. Also heartrending is the situation of Mary Cassatt’s sister and best friend, Lydia. Lydia loves Paris and life, but is ill with kidney disease. Her family’s wealth and devotion cannot prevent her premature death at a time when dialysis and transplants were unknown.
Oliveira’s up-close-and-personal narration makes these long-dead characters seem as real as ourselves, with hopes and fears as acute as our own.
For information on Ruth Latta’s books, including The Songcatcher and Me, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com

For information on Ruth Latta’s books, including The Songcatcher and Me, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com