A haunting painting entrances the women in whose hands it falls over the course of a century.
Forster (Is There Anything You Want?, 2006, etc.) continues her tradition of examining literary and artistic lives with this look at painter Gwen John (1876–1939). Survivor of a grim, motherless childhood in Wales, her cool, detached demeanor covers a maelstrom of emotions. She leaves home at 18 to attend London’s Slade School of Art and eventually ends up in Paris, where she refines her artistic approach. Continually under the shadow of her flamboyant brother Augustus, whose fame as a painter came more quickly, Gwen struggles to achieve recognition. Rebuffed by her former lover Auguste Rodin, she turns inward, painting her loneliness into a small picture of her attic room. That painting’s fictitious journey over the next century is the heart of the story. Gwen gives it to a friend, who loses it. The work is subsequently sold, passed down from mother to daughter, stolen, given by a woman to her lover, fought over in an estate and bequeathed to a young female artist. For each woman who possesses it, however briefly, the painting’s quiet luminosity calls to something deep inside her: emptiness, poverty, welcoming, tranquility or a “strange yearning…for something unobtainable.” Forster captures the characters’ artistic desires and delicately hints at the connections that nurture and inspire these women. She sets her characters in the context of the events that define the period, from the hardships and tragedies of two world wars to the escalation of art prices at the end of the 20th century.
An intimate, subtly crafted, satisfying read.