Sister Arts: Harriet Scott Chessman on the Subject of Mary Cassatt

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Muhammed Ali may seem an unlikely likeness for the author of Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, a novel about Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt's dying sister that has been lauded for its sensitivity and delicacy. But Daniel Simon, publisher of Seven Stories Press, compares Harriet Scott Chessman to the heavyweight champion, explaining, "In her subtle way, Harriet hits you at several different angles ... she has a lot of the qualities of a boxer."

Chessman's Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper was just co-published by the Permanent Press and Seven Stories in November, and it is already in its third printing. This is the first co-publication between the two independent publishers, and, to Simon, the connection is "a little like a sibling relationship," which is fitting since Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper itself hinges on sisterhood. The deceptively simple novel gives voice to Mary Cassatt's most intimate subject, her sister, Lydia, while showing us Lydia through Mary's eyes in the Cassatt paintings that are gorgeously reproduced throughout the book. As Lydia, succumbing to Bright's disease, contemplates her sister and her life in the face of her own death, Mary memorializes Lydia in the vivid pictures that helped establish her artistic reputation.

Martin Shepard, publisher of the Permanent Press, told BTW that many publishers have enthusiastically compared the book to Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring (Plume) and that rights to Lydia Cassatt have been sold to Plume for paperback and book club rights, and to Chivers, North America for audio rights, as well as to a bevy of foreign publishers.

Kirkus Reviews called the novel, "a moving and intensely introspective portrait of the way art is created and life relinquished" and Publishers Weekly described it as "elegantly conceived and tenderly written." It is number one on the November/December Book Sense 76, and Simon told BTW, "If Lydia Cassatt succeeds, it really will be a hand-selling success."

BTW recently interviewed Chessman, who said that she is thrilled by independent booksellers' warm support of her novel.

I understand that you have extensively researched and written on Mary Cassatt. Would you tell me a bit about your research and how it inspired and affected Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper?

I began to become fascinated by Cassatt's art in the mid-1980s, especially her oil paintings of mothers and children. I found these pictures rich and intricate, suggestive of both the safety and the fragility of the domestic world the figures inhabited. The circular movement implicit in the design of these mother-child images, and the way the figures looked at each other, not at someone "outside" the picture, often suggested a protected relationship, a relationship in which both figures felt protected. Yet the way the paintings showed themselves as paintings, in such a modern sense--the unfinished and dissolving quality, the presence of paint as paint--hinted at an important artifice. The images were of something at once untouched by time and poignantly mortal.

I was in the midst of finishing my first book, on Gertrude Stein, The Public Is Invited to Dance (Stanford University Press), when I began to think of writing a book interpreting Cassatt's art. This project came to me first as a scholarly one; as a teacher of English and American literature at Yale, I made the effort to learn more about art history, especially Impressionism. I actually had a contract (unfulfilled to this day!), with Stanford University Press, for a book to be titled Mary Cassatt and the Maternal Body, and I published an essay of the same name in a collection of essays on American painting, American Iconology (Yale University Press).

Once I stopped teaching full-time, however, in 1991, and began to write children's stories and then my first novel [Ohio Angels, published by Permanent Press in 1999 and just sold to Seven Stories, which will publish it again in hardcover in fall 2002], I gradually came to see that my love for Cassatt's art could find a fictional form. The pictures moved me, and, as I read more and more about Cassatt, her life moved me, too, especially her relationship with her older sister, Lydia. What especially drew me to the figure of Lydia was the haunting quality of the pictures for which she posed, and that historians knew so little about her.

What prompted you to write the novel from the perspective of the artist's subject?

I have always been absorbed by the idea of how one person, or culture, sees another--how this vision is often quite different from the perspective of the one seen. I'm especially intrigued by the way women have come to be represented in art. Mary Cassatt was unusual in becoming a painter; I think she was even more unusual in the generous and respectful way in which she chose to represent women as figures immersed in their own rich world and independent of a male gaze.

One of the biggest challenges for me at the beginning was to figure out who my own subject would be, and who would tell the story, whether I'd put it in first person or third. I actually attempted to write this story from Mary's point of view and in her voice, at first; then I tried to write it in a collage of various voices: Lydia's, another model's, Mary's, their mother's.

It took me a long time to figure out that the perspective most appealing and natural for me was Lydia's. Her position as a model for her sister seemed rich with fictional possibilities. I yearned to know more about Lydia Cassatt. And I felt it was essential to hear Lydia in the first person, to give her a protected space in which to articulate what I imagined to be her own vision and understanding. I loved this idea, of imagining the voice of a woman whose vision of life--like most people's--had gone unrecorded. And I loved the idea of the "subject" of a painting really becoming a subject, able to present her vision of the one painting her.

Lydia Cassatt repeatedly expresses doubts about her appearance--she feels she's haggard, wan, and plain, but her sister, the artist, calls her beautiful and is compelled to paint her again and again, and Degas expresses his admiration for Lydia in profound terms. What does Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper tell us about beauty?

I think my character Lydia can't confess, even to herself, that she finds beauty in herself, yet I think she does know she has something beautiful about her--even a "loaf of bread" has a satisfying shape and texture, and it's nourishing too! Cassatt's paintings, both of Lydia and of other women, show the beauty of introspection and of emotion. I have always felt that an intelligent face is a beautiful face, and, judging from Cassatt's images of women, I believe that she thought this as well.

The image of Lydia reading the morning paper makes Lydia an immediate presence, but also a transitory one. Why was this painting taken as your title-piece? While the paper she holds places her in a current, familiar world, it's a long-ago yesterday's paper. Why do you think Cassatt chose to focus on Lydia concentrating on a text so flimsy and fleeting? How did you select the paintings of Lydia that structure the book?

I liked the light and ordinary sound of this phrase; I liked the way it suggested something familiar and simple. You're right about the "morning paper" as fleeting; a newspaper is for one day only.

I think Cassatt might have liked this idea of capturing the moment--taking something evanescent and fleeting, and capturing it, holding it still. This is one of the conundrums of Impressionist painting: Your impressions, of one moment, become something that lasts. I wished to do something similar in my writing: to take a sequence of moments that might, from the outside, look small and familiar, and to make them memorable, to make them last.

I chose five paintings because I liked the design of five, as in the five acts of a play; I was looking for a frame that could help me create a clear and compelling movement for my story. I thought these five paintings were the ones of Lydia that had the most power. What amazed me was the way the paintings themselves, put into a sequence, suggested an implicit story.

The epigraph for your novel is "The imperfect is our paradise." How does this Wallace Stevens quote illuminate Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper?

I discovered that my character Lydia yearns for a safe place, "apart from the sting of bees and mortal life." At first, she sees her sister's pictures as such a place; and, yet, as she grows more ill--and as Mary begins to record Lydia's illness quietly, in the paintings--Lydia comes to recognize that the pictures hold no such safety from mortality. The fragility and evanescence of life, in fact, are precisely what the paintings come to record. And it's life's fragility that makes it so cherished; paradise, in this sense, is in the ragged here and now, not elsewhere.

-Interviewed by Molly Sackler