Isadora Duncan & Mary Cassatt

By Millicent Dillon

Dutton. 403 pp. $24.95

IN 1910, at the age of 32, dancer Isadora Duncan made a rapturous visit to Egypt. A year later, at the age of 66, painter Mary Cassatt, with considerably less enthusiasm, made her pilgrimage.

Except for the fact that both women were Americans who had gained international renown as expatriates through their art, there is nothing in their personalities or experience that warrants the juxtaposition Millicent Dillon attempts. Her title leads us to believe that perhaps Egypt had some recondite meaning in their artistic lives, but its epigraphic value is never elucidated.

In the case of Isadora Duncan, whose affair with the great theater designer Gordon Craig initiated her interest in Egypt, it is not difficult to accept her own account of her excitement (which led to an impromptu performance before the pyramids by the light of the moon). But Mary Cassatt's impressions (although strong, as might be expected of a visual artist) are never convincingly presented as vital to her life as a painter. Perhaps that was not Dillon's point at all. She believes, as she says in several frank passages, that there always remains "something beyond our reach in the telling."

Her telling of these two lives shuttles back and forth in time and place, but no amount of fragmenting and darting away from the linear can obscure the fact that, as lives go, Duncan's was interesting and Cassatt's was dull. The one aspect of Cassatt's life that might have borne re-telling was her initiation into the circle of the Impressionists (whom she called "our set") through the good offices of Degas.

But that part of the story is never told. Rather, Dillon seems bemused by the exceptionally conventional bourgeois life Cassatt led, and is at pains to make clear some of her less agreeable traits, such as the anti-Semitism revealed in letters to Louisine Havemeyer: In these she says of Gertrude Stein and her brother, "they are not Jews for nothing!" and of Mme. Curie, who was said to be having an illicit affair, that she is a Polish Jewess and therefore has no sense of right and wrong. And yet, in her youth, Cassatt had been an ardent Dreyfusard and in her extreme old age admired only the Socialists, of which Dillon has nothing to say. She does, however, tell us of Cassatt's embittered old age -- she went blind -- and her sense, in 1920, that she had witnessed "the fall of civilization" in a world that preferred cinema to theater and photography to art.

Inevitably the author of this book gets caught up in the myths and other tellings of the story of Isadora Duncan. Unlike Mary Cassatt, who was the daughter of a reasonably successful and rich banker, Duncan was the daughter of a failed and somewhat shady speculator and his exceptionally romantic wife. By the age of 18 Duncan was out in the world, demanding of it what was her due and, until nearly the end of her life, always getting it. She barnstormed the world and her comings and goings are pretty well described, as are her numerous affairs and the central tragedy of her life: the death by drowning of her two children.

Here, Dillon is lively and informative, comparing the various accounts in other biographies with Isadora's own account in her autobiography. Dillon wisely allows for the skewed vision of ex-lovers and professional rivals in the assessment of Duncan as an artist, and includes extensive quotations from dispassionate critics. For example, when Duncan was already past her prime, she made a tour in the United States during which the common press responded with vulgar disdain. Yet the well-known painter, Robert Henri, wrote that she was "perhaps one of the greatest masters of gestures the world has ever seen" and that she "carries us through a universe in a single movement of her body." Others, such as Sir Frederick Ashton, Gertrude Stein and Edwin Denby, are also cited, and provide a useful summary of the reasons, the artistic reasons, that Isadora Duncan has elicited so much written commentary. AS FOR THE biographical reasons, Dillon has just about covered all the ground, writing of Duncan's numerous love affairs; of her encounter with Eleanora Duse (who, contrary to what Duncan wrote, was profoundly offended by her promiscuity); of her frequent efforts to establish a school, first in Europe and then in the United States; and finally, of her extraordinary flight to the newly founded Soviet Union and her ill-fated romance with the unstable Russian poet, Sergei Esenin. Here, Dillon has compiled a great deal of evidence and offered a vivid account of Duncan's effort to keep Esenin from destroying everything in sight -- from hotel rooms to Duncan herself -- in his violent and drunken depressions.

The final scenes of her life, in which the almost destitute dancer is in Nice in 1927, are well told, attesting to the potential skills of the author who moves swiftly to the fatal flirtation of the aging dancer with a young garage mechanic into whose sports car she stepped, calling out, "Adieu my friends, I go to glory." Within minutes she was dead of a broken neck when her famous voluminous shawl caught in the wheels of the low-slung car.

The problem with this book is summed up in art critic Claude Roger-Marx's description of Cassatt's color prints: "The term drypoint describes not inaptly the remoteness and dignity always preserved by Cassatt." Dillon's effort to find some common thread to justify her unnatural coupling of Cassatt and Duncan was bound to fail. She believes that "the very act of seeing changes the object seen" but in this case, nothing can be changed: Cassatt put her life into her art, while Duncan put her art into her life, which makes for a better story.

Dore Ashton is the author of many books on modern art, including "The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning."