Robin Oliveira’s Love Letter to Impressionism

'I Always Loved You' explores the relationship between Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas

Toward the end of her life, as her vision steadily declined, American painter Mary Cassatt burned all of the letters to, and from, her friend and mentor, Edgar Degas.

“She burned a significant portion of impressionist history,” says author Robin Oliveira, whose new book, I Always Loved You, uses historical fiction to examine the complex relationship between the two painters, all in the context of a shining Paris positively bristling with artists. Oliveira appears at Book Passage on Feb. 7.

The nature of the relationship between Cassatt and Degas remains a mystery, even to the biographers and historians who’ve spent years poring over musty diaries, journals and letters, trying to find clues. Were they in love? Had they been lovers at any point in time? It’s a historical lacuna into which Oliveira dived with enthusiasm, after discovering the anecdote about the burned letters during a 2009 trip to Paris with her husband.

Set during the Belle Époque—the “beautiful era” of peace and prosperity (for a privileged few) tucked between the early years of the French Third Republic and World War I—I Always Loved You takes readers into the inner lives of Degas and Cassatt, and on a journey through the salons, cabarets, bistros and studios populated by artists and writers like Édouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Emile Zola.

Taking Mary Cassatt as her centerpiece, Oliveira draws an engaging portrait of the young American painter, whose dedication to her art, combined with talent and innovation, led her to being the only American asked to show work alongside the formidable impressionists, the renegade group that rejected the rules of the Salon, France’s art-establishment giant. She was invited into the insular circle by Degas, who had become intrigued with Cassatt after spotting her at the opening of the Salon, and after seeing much promise in one of her paintings.

Unsurprisingly, the book also digs into the complicated relationship between Cassatt and her father, a wealthy stockbroker and land speculator who didn’t quite approve of his daughter’s artistic impulses. “I like writing strong female characters,” Oliveira says, on the phone from her home outside of Seattle. “To think about the kind of strength and determination that she had to defy her father.”

But Oliveira found the biggest challenge came with Degas. “He was a very difficult person for me to understand,” explains Oliveira. “He was a really irascible guy. He was pretty much difficult to everybody, but he would write these lovely notes to his friends as well.”

Best known for his breathtaking, light-infused paintings of young ballerinas onstage and in the studio, Degas struggled with what was most likely a form of macular degeneration from an early age, says Oliveira. Despite this significant challenge, he managed to create an astounding body of work. In order to find a deeper connection with Degas, Oliveira leapt through a series of hoops to be able to see artifacts from Degas’ studio now kept at the Musée d’Orsay, items stored in the basement and not generally seen by the general public.

The visit helped her create a more nuanced depiction of a man some call a misogynist, though Oliveira doesn’t see him that way. “I think he was a realist. He was reacting against the strict Salon art, and he said, let’s paint women how they really are.”

Along with her visit to the Musée d’Orsay, Oliveira traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Louvre and the National Gallery in London to view works of art by her main subjects. She read some 50 books on art history, art technique, diaries and biographies of the impressionists, all of which formed the foundation for the novel. The author of one other work of historical fiction, My Name Is Mary Sutter, Oliveira finds the research process to be a “complete blast.”

“My approach is that I don’t change the facts of their lives,” she says. “I don’t move them from place to place. I don’t make up incidents. I’m very careful about the schedule of their lives. I won’t invent things that couldn’t possibly have happened, but I’m very attuned to the creation of who they were. I’m always balancing between fiction and history, and taking a great deal of care [with] why the things that happened, happened.”