Sunday, February 02, 2014

Review: I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira

I’m something of an artist, but more than that, I love art, I love looking at art, I love hearing the stories behind the art and the artists who created the art.  So I was very much looking forward to reading I Always Loved You, which is described as a romance between Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas – something I had not even realized existed.  (After reading the book, still not sure it did exist, but more about that later.)

I’m not all that knowledgeable about the group of artists known as the impressionists.  My tastes tend toward the Renaissance painters – Michelangelo and da Vinci, and then the surrealists – Dali and Miro. 

I never though much of the Impressionists when I was younger, I thought their work was too pretty – gorgeous landscapes and beautiful portraits.  I didn’t understand all these artists went through before they reached a point in which almost every home in the world owns at least one Monet or Renoir print.  I don’t think I fully appreciated the Impressionists until I visited the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, and saw so much of the work on display together.  Seeing the work in person, it’s impossible to not appreciate the effort that went into these paintings, an attempt to paint the light, to capture the moment, bodies at rest or in motion – not carefully and prettily posed. 

Before I read this book, I knew that Mary Cassatt was an American who was best known for painting pictures of mothers and children, despite never marrying or having children of her own.  I knew that Degas painted ballerinas.  I knew that Manet is the artist who painted the picture of fully clothes men having a picnic while a nude woman sat with them.  I Always Loved You brings to life the stories of the people associated with those familiar names and works of art.

I’ve Always Loved You is the story of those artists – Cassatt, Degas, Manet, Berthe Morisot, and to some extent Camille Pissaro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Gustave Caillebotte, who financed everything to keep his friends from starving for their love of art.  In this novel, Robin Oliveira captures a time when the work of these artists was trashed by critics and called lazy, strange and ugly – all because they were trying something new and different.  People had never seen art like this and they didn’t quite know what to think about it.  These artists were no longer following the rules, they weren’t catering to the Salon – though a few in their group were still trying to get accepted into the Paris Salon, in hopes of changing the way art was viewed from the highest levels.

This is the story of their struggles as they staged their independent exhibitions and the internal battles as these tempermental personalities clashed frequently, as well their small gradual successes that eventually led to them no longer being the “other” artists.  They had no guarantee of success, most of them were struggling financially, barely able to pay the rent or even eat on a regular basis.  But eventually their hard work paid off, most of them saw great success, eventually living comfortable lives.  Because of their persistence, their art became the art people wanted to see.  They changed the art world.  Now their work hangs in museums all over the world, and long after their deaths we know their names and recognize the pictures they painted.

Oliveira kept their story interesting, focusing on the aspects of their life that affected their art, as well as how art affected their personal lives. 

What this story isn’t though is a love story between two people, which is what I was initially expecting.  If a reader embarks on this book expecting a passionate romance between Cassatt and Degas, I feel they might be disappointed.  The two have a close friendship, there’s some flirting, teasing, it’s hinted that more may be wanted from each, but it never develops into much – at least not in my opinion.  The great love story that exists within these pages is that between and artists and art. 

As an artist, I especially loved reading about the mental process of these artists.  Their ideas about color and line and light bring their work to life.  I felt that Oliveira captured that very well, providing insight to people who may not be familiar with painting and how much thought goes into the work.  Seeing with the heart is how Degas explains it.  I could also relate to their fears and doubts about their ideas and abilities.  And as a woman, who learned early on that I lack the ability to give the necessary attention to both my work and my relationships, I could relate too well to Mary Cassatt’s struggle to choose art over love.  She knew that when she was involved with someone, thinking of him, that her work suffered.  She had to decide what mattered more, art that would last forever or a man she could never entirely trust.  I don’t know how historically accurate any of this was.  As I said, I’d never heard of a romance between Cassatt and Degas, but these are also people I’ve not studied extensively.  It is certainly an interesting idea though and I enjoyed reading it.

I really liked this book and consider it a must read for anyone who has any interest in art history and the people behind the paintings that are now so familiar to us.

This book will be released on February 4, 2014.  I received a review copy via NetGalley.

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