Modeling for Degas

Woman Reading, Mary Cassatt, 1879

Woman Reading, Mary Cassatt, 1879

I recently read a book called Lydia Cassatt reading the Morning Paper, by Harriet Scott Chessman. I picked it from a random shelf at the library while I was looking for something else. It’s a novel about the impressionist painter Mary Cassatt and her family, told from the point of view of her sister Lydia.

One of the characters in the book, Edgar Degas, was apparently also a prominent figure in Cassatt’s life, and an enduring artistic influence. In the novel, Mary’s sister models for a painting that Degas is doing. Here is her description of that experience:

How can I describe the sensation of being looked at by this man? His look felt, at moments, like a storm on a coast, stirring the trees to wildness, shifting the dunes. I hadn’t been prepared.

[Insert contemplative moment here.]

It’s often hard for me to describe what I’m searching for in a piece of writing, but this is an example of a passage that hit the spot. The description opened up an entirely new experience to me. I know what it feels like when someone is looking at me with fondness, with appreciation, with irritation (is there a mother who doesn’t know this feeling?), or even, thanks to el Guapo, with desire. But the experience described here is an unfamiliar one. It sounds very unsettling.

It causes me to consider different ways of looking, different levels of seeing. Just as we sometimes listen to each other with only enough attention to be able to tell when we can speak next, I think at times we may see others well enough not to bump into them, but not so well that we see them in meaningful ways. Even careful scrutiny, if it’s all about judging (“I bet she’s had plastic surgery”), doesn’t get at what I’m talking about. I think what I’m getting at is looking at one another with a desire to understand, and with compassion. When we do that, we see things quite differently.

Very few of us would look with the intensity of Degas, preparing to capture in paint something ineffable about a face. But even without a brush in our hands, we could look with more care, more appreciation. I’ve just finished a passage in The Hiding Place where Corrie Ten Boom is allowed to stand silently in a room with other prisoners, after more than a month in solitary confinement. Her response: “How rich is anyone who can simply see human faces!”


Casper Ten Boom, a face Corrie loved (from

I don’t know whether Degas ever did scrutinize Lydia Cassatt, or whether a painting resulted. But that shouldn’t keep us from enjoying some more art, so I’ll decorate here with one of Degas’ paintings of dancers:

Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas, 1889

Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas, 1889

…and another painting by Cassatt. It’s not mentioned in the book, but when lilacs are an option, I just say yes. Do your best to conjure their scent as you study this one, and for those of you who have endured this long New England winter, have faith that the snow will one day melt, and there will be flowers.

Lilacs in a Window, 1880, Mary Cassatt

Lilacs in a Window, 1880, Mary Cassatt


2 thoughts on “Modeling for Degas

  1. Ah lilacs, yes! Very true that we often listen to others only long enough to insert what we have to say. Is a constant effort to remind myself to truly listen. The book on Mary Cassatt sounds fascinating. I love her work.

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