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Reviewed by Ioana Marza for Readers' Favorite
Portraits of an Artist is a historical novel focused on three eventful years in the life of American portrait painter John Singer Sargent, years which defined his whole career and future life course. Around 1882, Sargent produced some of his most famous works and the story behind them, the complex relationships between their subjects and the painter, as well as the European artistic background at the time, are described with charm and respect for facts by Mary F. Burns.
Sargent’s talent, the controversy surrounding him, as well as his interesting personality, make an excellent subject for a novel and Mary F. Burns approached it in a clever way. She describes the painter through the eyes of his subjects, who at the same time reveal their own emotions and struggles. Each painting has a story and there is clearly much research behind this. The fact that Burns also includes a copy of each of the portraits within the relevant chapter is a nice touch and I enjoyed looking at them and considering what was suggested about the psychology of their setting, shades, and the little significant details. The cultural lessons do not end there and we’re spoilt with appearances from a series of artists and writers, from Vernon Lee to Henry James.
Similar to Sargent’s character, who had multiple facets described by those close to him, Portraits of an Artist has many complex sides. It is the story of a man striving to succeed in the art that he loves - a deeply passionate yet intelligent man who, beside his natural talent, is very conscious of the carefully constructed way in which a painter living in Paris needed to infiltrate French high society in order to thrive. It is also an account of the nomadic life led by rich American expatriates, travelling around Europe, who become so immersed in its culture and way of life that they end up feeling out of place in their native country. Ultimately, it is a profoundly human story of people who cannot have the one they love, though not for lack of trying.