THE PORTRAIT by Iain Pears


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A Scottish painter meets his English mentor and former friend after many years, in this poisoned miniature from the author of the behemoth An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998) and The Dream of Scipio (2002).

In the waning years of the 19th century, William Nasmyth encouraged Henry MacAlpine to paint, shared his knowledge of the European masters with the younger man, included his work in exhibitions he was organizing, and subtly managed at the same time to inhibit and discredit him. Now that the insurgent Impressionists and Post-Impressionists William championed have become establishment artists, Henry, long retired from public life to the tiny Breton island of Houat, has enticed William to the island to sit for his portrait. As William poses in what he takes to be the foreground, silent as a Strindberg foil, Henry reflects on the very different roads that have brought the two of them to this spot at the end of the world. His monologue ranges over the moment when he first knew himself to be an artist, the shameful way he got money for his first trip to Paris, the still undetected fraud he perpetrated on William years ago, and his relations with the painter Evelyn, the prostitute/model Jacky, and the prophetic patron Mrs. Algernon Roberts. Until the very end, narrative elements are resolutely subordinated to an essayistic ramble on the themes of the artist’s vocation (the painter is “someone who prays with his brush”), the symbiotic relationship between artists and the critics they hate, and the artist as creator and killer. Though Pears’s epigrams are not in the same league with Oscar Wilde’s, his grasp of melodrama, honed on his seven mysteries starring Rome’s art-theft squad (The Immaculate Deception, 2000, etc.), is sharp as ever, as he finally indicates in disclosing Henry’s motive and master plan.

A short story’s worth of incident floated on a prickly cushion of aphorism.

Pub Date: April 21st, 2005
ISBN: 1-57322-298-4
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Riverhead
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2005


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