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The Portrait


The Portrait

Artists who specialize in portraiture are good at details. The
twitch of an eye, a shadow, the rapid parade of expressions and
moods that cross even the most unremarkable faces --- all these the
painter is trained to notice and capture on canvas. Henry Morris
MacAlpine has a lifetime of observations to embellish the portrait
of the man who was once his greatest influence.

In the 1890s, MacAlpine was a rough young artist from Scotland,
struggling to make his way in London and Paris. William Nasmyth ---
writer, critic, and arbiter of all that was sophisticated and
trendsetting in the London art world --- took a liking to the young
painter, attracted by his naiveté and the energy of seeing
something for the first time, even if it was through someone else's
eyes. He took MacAlpine under his wing and educated him, gave him a
grounding in taste and culture, contacts and experience.

Of course, because he was a painter --- and specifically a portrait
artist --- MacAlpine saw far more than he was intended to see. He
observed how his friend treated women, his family, and other
artists. He saw his selfishness and how he relished his power, able
to make or break artists with one review or simply through
well-timed comments to other influential people. Eventually, he saw
enough to make it impossible to continue their relationship and the
painter fled England and his own career with no explanation.

Brittany is a good place for ghosts. MacAlpine, living alone in a
hut on a stormy island, far away from anything to do with art, is
unable to escape the spirits of two women --- one an artist, the
other a model --- who both owe their ruin to Nasmyth. Years later,
the artist invites his old friend to his remote island to paint his
picture and tell him all he knows.

THE PORTRAIT is told in a first-person narrative. Simply, the
artist talks to his friend as he paints. It's hard not to want some
defense, some reaction, from Nasmyth. How does he answer the
charges MacAlpine lays at his door? But that's not in keeping with
the book. The artist controls the portrait and the narrative; his
account of Nasmyth's face tells us all we need to know.

Best known to American readers as the author of AN INSTANCE OF THE
FINGERPOST, Iain Pears has given us his own psychological portrait
of art, power, and the remnants of a curdled friendship.

Reviewed by Colleen Quinn ( on January 19, 2011

The Portrait
by Iain Pears

  • Publication Date: April 21, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
  • ISBN-10: 1573222984
  • ISBN-13: 9781573222983