Robin Oliveira

I Always Loved You

I Always Loved You

The Story Behind the Story

In the days after Edgar Degas's death, Mary Cassatt, the only American Impressionist painter, hurried to his studio in Paris to retrieve her letters to him, only to later burn them, along with all his letters to her, just before her own death. This act, while hiding the exact nature of their relationship, also served to arouse perennial curiosity. What exactly happened between those two famous artists, whose relationship sparked questions even when they were alive? Could we ever really know? Here was the gap in history, the "in" I needed in order to enter their enticing mystery, and through it the captivating world of the Impressionists. But first, in order to tell their story, I knew I had much to learn.

What ensued was an odyssey of research. Initially, I read perhaps seventy or eighty books, engulfing myself in art criticism, diaries and the biographies of the Impressionists, learning their individual styles and struggles, both professional and personal. The story began to expand as I saw connections between not only Cassatt and Degas, but all the artists of their circle, changing the shape of the narrative in startling ways. I soon understood that if I was going to do this properly, I was going to have to move beyond books and the internet to hunt down specific paintings to experience them in person. By the time I finished writing, I had traveled twenty thousand miles in eighteen months to view dozens of artworks, sometimes getting to view them in the locked basements and storage rooms of some of the foremost museums in the world.

Two scintillating moments of discovery stand out.

I was deeply into writing a chapter describing Cassatt's failure to embrace the changes she was hoping to make to her work when I realized that I needed a painting of Cassatt's from the time period when she was beginning her transition to Impressionism. The vaults of the Philadelphia Museum of Art held a portrait of an American woman, Miss Mary Ellison, who was an acquaintance of Cassatt. The painting seemed, on the computer screen, to be unremarkable: a young woman embroidering, a dull background, little expression, nothing of note. But fearing that the computer screen was misleading, I arranged to visit the museum. On the appointed day I descended into the vast dungeon-like basement of that fine neoclassical building, where works are stored when they are not on display. Art handlers pulled out a long storage rack, removed Miss Ellison and laid her upright against a velvet stand. In person, the painting burst to life. Cassatt's colors were so saturated, the brushstrokes so free. You could see her breaking out of the Academy mold that had restricted her. You could, in fact, see the beginning of the rest of her life. I admit to a great sense of excitement and maybe even a tear or two. Truthfully, the painting is rather unremarkable. You might pass by it and think nothing of it. But I knew the story behind that painting; I knew what it meant to Cassatt and to her career. As a result, I completely rewrote that chapter, which significantly changed the direction of the narrative.

During the course of my work, I also learned that the Musée d'Orsay in Paris was in possession of objects from Degas's studio. These, too, were not on view to the public, but I decided I had to get into the basement of the museum to see those artifacts. I needed something material, beyond his art, to understand this mercurial man. However, navigating the French museum bureaucracy with my admittedly poor French turned out to be a convoluted undertaking. After much pleading on my part, a clerk in the research library introduced me to the Degas curator. A series of fruitless emails followed. Two weeks before my scheduled trip to Paris, I still had no appointment. Desperate, I engaged the help of my editor, whose assistant miraculously had a friend who spoke perfect French. She emailed for me. The curator, she reported back, would be out of town when I was there. Crestfallen, I again wrote the library clerk, and she somehow finagled permission to show me the artifacts. I arrived for my meeting at the appointed hour, eager and excited.

However, the assistant forgot to mention that security at the museum was as tight as security at the White House. (Meanwhile, the French landlord of my rented apartment had instructed me to never carry my passport due to the prevalence of pickpockets in the city.) The two women who ran the reception desk refused to let me in without my passport. Not only that, but they would not call anyone, either, and "Certainly not the person I had an appointment with, not without ID!" We argued back and forth, me in my terrible college French, they in their rapid-fire native language. I got nowhere, but I would not leave. It would be a terrible blow if, for lack of a passport, I was denied the appointment I had worked so hard for. The French receptionists then proceeded to ignore me. (Later, my daughter Noelle said, Why didn't you just pull up your Amazon page or Web site on their computers? Right. This is why we need the millennials, but unfortunately she was not with me.) I paced. I asked again and again to please just place the call. They grew more indignant, saying that if I were to rob the place, what would they say to the police when they couldn't present them with an ID? (Which, had I actually intended to rob the place, would of course have been false.) I pleaded some more. Finally, one of them relented--I don't know why, I don't recall crying—and called the lovely assistant, who came to my rescue, and despite much scolding from the receptionists, signed her life away and led me to the basement, where the exalted treasures of Degas's studio are kept in an absurdly ordinary metal filing cabinet.

One after another she pulled from the cabinet the very things I had been hoping to see: his array of brushes, a series of pallettes still thick with the paint of the last paintings he had made, his pastel box full of crumbled chalk, his paint box, several pairs of his eyeglasses, revealing in some small measure the tragedy of the blindness that darkened his last days, and finally a prize beyond measure: a living clay mask of Degas made for a stone sculpture in the early 1880's. It was the last thing she pulled from the cabinet, saying off-handedly, "Oh, there's one other thing..." When she laid the mask in front of me, it was worth all the embarrassment of nearly being kicked out of the Musée d'Orsay, for there he was, as if he were before me himself. This surprise capped all the research I had done, and would give me one of the most important moments in the book.

In I Always Loved You, the research—sometimes scholarly, sometimes fraught with comic peril—was key, as it is in all historical fiction, not only because of the necessary details one must glean in order to evoke the time period, but for the serendipitous gifts of discovery that crystallize a story and give it its soul. When I think back on the effort I expended to see the things I needed to see in order to underpin this novel, I am exhausted all over again. I'm proud of that moment at reception at the d'Orsay, proud I persisted so that I could tell you this story of art and impossible love. Art is an artifice, Degas famously said, meaning that art is a made thing, not quite true, but not quite false. In that contradiction lies a story's power to entrance and beguile. The impressionist's story entranced and beguiled me from the moment I heard that Mary Cassatt tried to do away with any trace of her relationship with Degas. But so much of their story remained—in rumor, history, and their art—all of which I plundered in search of what happened between them, so long ago.

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