Iain Pears

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"The Portrait"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 12, 2005)

"Can I tell you my earliest memory? You are being my confessor… you have no choice. You are my prisoner, trapped by your bizarre desire for a portrait by my hand….My confession to you is making me feel better…and do not think I am talking for no purpose. I have a very real purpose; I am confessing my sins in advance, before I have committed them. Explaining my painting to you, so you will understand it. See why I have chosen to do it this way, rather than any other."

the Portrait by Iain Pears

In a complete change of pace from his previous intricately plotted and lengthy literary thrillers ( An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio), Iain Pears here writes a novella-length study of an artist painting a three-part portrait of the most famous art critic in England in the years of 1910 - 1913, a man with whom he has had a significant history over many years. The critic, William Nasmyth, has come to Houat, a small island off the Brittany coast, where the artist, Henry Morris MacAlpine, has been living with fishermen for several years.

"It is time," MacAlpine tells the critic, "to discover whether I can ever go back to England by exploring why I left in the first place," a decision which is clearly related to some dispute with Nasmyth. For him, painting Nasmyth's portrait, "is an opportunity to renew the battle and fight it to a conclusion. Who will emerge triumphant from this encounter of ours, do you think? The painter or the sitter? Will it be 'Portrait of a Gentleman by Henry Morris MacAlpine,' or 'Portrait of William Nasmyth, by anon." As he paints during the course of several days, MacAlpine addresses Nasmyth about their past in London, the state of the art world and its artists during these years of post-impressionism, their mutual friends and lovers, and Nasmyth's role in the success or failure of MacAlpine's artist-friends. Sometimes angry and hostile, sometimes snide, and occasionally sentimental, MacAlpine intends to incorporate all of this past history in the portrait, which is to be a triptych—his view of Nasmyth as he was, as he is now, and as he will be.

The artist is articulate and observant as he speaks to Nasmyth, who, the reader discovers, is partly responsible for MacAlpine's exile on Houat. Gradually, the past unfolds through the artist's dramatic monologue, and Nasmith is revealed as a consummately ego-driven man who enjoys making or breaking artists and allying himself with those who set new art trends, which he interprets and celebrates in print. Any artist who wishes to find success in London must, in fact, be a good artist, but he must also pay homage to Nasmyth. Those who fail as artists or refuse to co-operate with Nasmyth are on their own, without the connections to gain exhibitions or patrons.

Nasmyth has been a brutal man. After forcing Anderson, one young artist whom Nasmyth deemed inferior, to give up painting to become a gallery owner, Anderson joined with MacAlpine to dupe Nasmyth in the forgery of a post-impressionist painting, something Nasmyth never suspected and about which MacAlpine crows during the portrait sitting. Evelyn, an artist who refused to bow to Nasmyth, created tiny drawings which appealed greatly to MacAlpine, but she was mocked and derided in print by Nasmyth. Willing to starve and to give up everything for her art, Evelyn would not play Nasmith's games, becoming, as MacAlpine says, "an object lesson in the dangers not of opposing you but merely of not supporting you." MacAlpine himself believes that unless he can resolve his difficulties with Nasmyth, he will be unable to return to London. As the action evolves from reminiscences of the past to thoughts of the present, the reader senses that dramatic events will unfold in the future.

With a doctorate in art history and numerous publications in the field, Pears is able to recreate the vibrant art world of Paris and London just before World War I in all its passion, its controversy, and its heady excitement. Henry MacAlpine is a character who feels totally realistic, one we come to know, not by what he says, but by what he implies and then forces us to conclude. His friend Evelyn and his model Jacky are depicted realistically, and the reader, who comes to know them through MacAlpine's reminiscences about them, empathizes with them for their treatment by Nasmyth.

One of the difficulties of writing a novel which is entirely a dramatic monologue, however, is that although the reader comes to know the speaker, there are no conversations with other characters to show how they interact with each other. The reader is totally dependent on the speaker for information and never sees other characters in action. This leads to a novel which "tells about" what happens, instead of recreating it and allowing the reader to share it. The author must build suspense and tension through words, rather than through action scenes, a device which leaves the reader at arm's length. Although the reader of this novel may figure out generally what the conclusion will be before the novel ends, Pears has saved some surprises, and when the novel draws to a close, the reader feels the rightness of the conclusion.

Filled with personal details which reveal the heart and soul of a struggling artist, the novel is a fascinating glimpse of the art world during the age of post-impressionism. But it is more than that. It also offers an insider's view of what it is like for an artist to sacrifice all for his craft, only to have others, like Nasmyth, who are not artists, have the power to determine that artist's success or failure. Ultimately (and ironically), MacAlpine assures Nasmyth, his portrait will be "an extraordinary work, something that will stick in the memory and replace those images that dance in my head when I try to sleep. A work that will last for all time. Worth the effort, I think. Even you would approve, critic though you are."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 32 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Jonathan Argyll, Art History Mystery Series:



  • The Discovery of Painting: The Growth of Interest in the Arts in England 1680-1768 (1988)


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Book Marks:


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About the Author:

Iain PearsIain Pears was born in Coventry in 1955. He was educated at Wadham College, Oxford and has worked as a journalist, an art historian and a television consultant in England, France, Italy, and the United States.

He currently lives with his wife and children in Oxford.

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