The Lost Sketchbook of Edgar Degas

Written by Harriet Scott Chessman
Review by Val Adolph

Artist Edgar Degas spent the winter of 1872-73 with his brother’s family in New Orleans. No sketchbook of his time there has been found. This much is fact, as is the art world’s surprise that an artist so prolific would appear not to have produced work during that period. Chessman builds this novel on the premise that the sketchbook was not lost but had been hidden. Its discovery leads to revelations about his perception of each individual and the family.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Degas’ sister-in-law and cousin, Tell (Estelle), who is blind. It opens as she greets her charming husband, Rene, who is returning from Paris and bringing his brother Edgar. Throughout his stay with the family, Edgar Degas spends much of his time sketching them – the three sisters, all their children, the servants, and even the dog. The sisters describe the sketches to Tell, and they are not complimentary about them. The faces are blurred, they say, the colors are muddy, people in them are looking away or half-hidden. Why couldn’t Edgar have made more attractive sketches?

But this is a novel about perception at various levels, or the lack of it. Tell’s blindness—her inability to appreciate the art firsthand—leads her to question others both at the time of Degas’ visit and much later, when her marriage has fallen apart and the secret of the sketchbook is partly revealed. By careful questioning, she discovers layers of insight about her family—their strengths and weaknesses, but mostly their loves. All of this has been laid bare in the sketchbook art Tell understands but has never seen. Tell learns also her daughter’s secret, and her own buried feelings.

I found this a perceptive book about the artistic expression of perception.