Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper

Written by Harriet Scott Chessman
Review by Trudi E. Jacobson


This jewel of a novel centers on five paintings Mary Cassatt made of her older sister Lydia between 1878 and 1881. Lydia was Mary’s (or May’s, as she was called by her family) favorite model, and May delighted in painting her. Lydia, who was becoming increasingly ill during this period, posed in quiet, domestic scenes: reading a newspaper, holding a cup of tea, working at her embroidery. She cherished the quiet time with her sister as she was being painted.

Chessman has imagined these scenes between May and Lydia so successfully that it is hard to think of this as of fiction. Lydia reminisces on the quiet joys that might have been hers had not the Civil War intervened, and she struggles to face the consequences of her illness. Family members and the Paris art world play cameo roles, May’s close friend Degas a somewhat larger and critical role.

The author describes the five paintings through Lydia’s eyes, letting us see them as we might not have otherwise. Even readers who are familiar with these paintings of Lydia (all five are reproduced in color) will never look at them in the same way again. This book, published on the 75th anniversary of Mary Cassatt’s death, is heartrending and utterly engaging. I can imagine rereading it many times in the coming years.