Dysfunctional Romance in Belle Epoque Paris

Destination: Paris (Belle Epoque–1880s-1920s)

Book: I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira (New February 2014)

Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas–(shown here in portrait and self-portrait by Degas) a dysfunctional romance if  there was one.  That is not a typo. (I did not mean to type “if ever there was one”.)

It is clear in reading I Always Loved You: A Novel that Robin Oliveira had very little fact to go on in her novelized version of the rumored love affair between the American and French artists, but the suspicion is enough to go on. Life among the artists of the Belle Epoque in Paris on the other hand swirls and sparkles just as you would expect in the midst of a gang that included a bunch of nobodies (then) who are artistic treasures (now).  We are treated to gossip about the Impressionists who were shocking the world with their rebellious style.  Bad boy Edouard Monet and his longest-running love affair with Berthe Moreset, a rare female artist, who winds up marrying Edouard’s brother.  And there are Pizarro, Monet, Renoir, and writer/ critic Emile Zola, just to name the best known attendees at the endless party. All working to find their personal style. All worried about money–either living on family money or doing for-hire portraits to pay the rent.

The whole world seemed to be in Paris, as the city recovered from invasion by the Prussians by undergoing a massive renovation effort.

Belle Epoque
Paris Left Bank Historic Cafe

Oliveira has done her homework.  She describes the remaking of Paris in the 1880s by Haussman in realistic detail. The air was filled with cement dust, streets were torn up and muddy. But inside, everything was beautiful.  See this “lost” apartment that reflects the way people lived during the late 19th century in Paris. Her descriptions make this a terrific book for any traveler who wants to see Paris as it was evolving into the form it takes today.

Although the author is not a painter, she gets inside the mind and hands of the new breed of artists she portrays with words as they try to create the world with paint or clay.

But why, since they spent so much time together, and tout Paris whispered about their affair, do we know so little about the relationship of Cassatt and Degas? Because she burned their letters. All of them. Because they were very discreet. Because they seemed to spend at least as much time angrily apart as they did cozying up together in a studio.

What Oliveira shows us in her fictionalized version is a rather naive, but strong-willed and sharply intelligent Marry Casatt.  And an unpredicatable, ascerbic and difficult Edgar Degas.  Here’s a typical quote describing Degas:

The problem, Degas thought, with cultivating a reputation as a man of severe wit was that people believed it.  He did not mean to batter; he traveled around Paris with all the good intentions of genuine interest, but people could be so disappointing. What did people do with their intelligence? It mystified him.

In Oliveira’s version of events, Mary seldom disappoints.  Her ability to match Degas’ arguments and even best him attracted him to the none-too-beautiful woman.

Aside from their stormy relationship–think Richard and Liz without the paparazzi and the diamonds–we see a lot of Manet, learn a great deal about both Cassatt’s and Degas’ art and see Mary struggle with parents who are not totally supportive and understanding. Additionally, her beloved sister is always ill and a source of worry.

e National Gallery's wax Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1879-81, the only sculpture Degas ever allowed to be exhibited. NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C., COLLECTION OF MR. AND MRS. PAUL MELLON
The National Gallery’s wax Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1879-81

I like to give you a flavor of the author’s way with words, but my favorite passage in this book, for its amazing artfulness, is too long to quote in its entirety.  I’m not sure that a short version carries the force that the slow build-up over five pages does.  This is one of the most sensuous passages I have ever read–and it does not lead where you think it is going.  Degas takes a 14-year-old dancer to his studio. There he builds up the fire to warm the room and instructs her to disrobe.  All the young dancers are used to being sold (usually by their mothers) to older men for their sexual pleasure, so the little girl follows his instructions.

Sighing, he lifted the girl’s right leg, studying the colors and the reflection of the candlelight.  As if she were onstage, Marie extended and pointed her toes.  He grasped her heel, then ran his hands from her extended ankle along the knotted calf over the knob of her knee to the sinew of her thigh, probing with his fingers.  He had been thrilled when he had first learned that it was the lesser muscles that levered the leg upward, the strength coming from the hamstring and not from the quadriceps…..

The pages go on with such exquisite detail that we can see the wax image of the “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” his only sculpture, being born. He was a genius, the author is showing us, but the genius was supported by hard-earned knowledge.  And the author herself is showing extraordinary skills as she presents the scene.

Degas left us so much grace and beauty from the ballet, but most important to him was the reality of the human form and movement. Therefore he also shocked with his pictures of awkward poses as women bathed.


The novel concludes that Cassatt painted love. All those adorable little girls. All those mothers with their children–a role that she would never experience. In a chapter titled “What she does not tell him.”

…while Mary has painted love and seen love and been admired for seeing and painting love, somehow she has not managed to have love.  That it confounds her that her life must be devoid of love to have art.  That it confounds her that this must be the choice.

Belle Epoque painting of Cassatt
Cassatt’s “Maternal Caress.

What he will never tell her is that people and appointments and commitments get in the way of making art. That his work is never good enough. That the goal is always just out of sight.

She wonders, “What was it about genius that sabotaged happiness? What was it about desire that betrayed?”

It is a sad story in the end.  And particularly so in light of the great joy in the works of art that these self-doubting, troubled, loving and loveless artists created. Author Robin Olivereia captures both the exterior life of Belle Epoque Paris and the interior life of the sparkling group of artists coming of age in the end of the 19th century.

Vera Marie Badertscher

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.