The narrative alternates between the years 1661 and 2001, picturing two painters: Rembrandt, an established icon in art, and Amy Dale, a talented artist, aspiring for greatness. Amy is separated from Rembrandt by three and a half centuries, but she is just as devoted to her calling as the Dutch painter was.
Rembrandt ends up in Hull accidentally, while hiding on a ship during his attempt to escape from his creditors. The captain of the ship demands that Rembrandt pay for his trip with portraits of himself and his wife. Andrew Marvell, a poet and the captain’s friend, who has suggested this kind of payment in the first place, has his own designs on the painter. He challenges him to a competition: Each will celebrate the captain’s wife, Amelia Dahl, in his art, and the winner would get her affection. It will be “a duel of artists”—Marvell’s pen against Rembrandt’s brush. Amelia will be the one to determine the winner.
These events were recorded by Amelia Dahl in her diaries, which eventually fall into the hands of her descendent, Amy Dale.
Amy lands a job of restoring the Dahls’ home, a 17th century mansion. She is fascinated by the drama that transpired at this place, but she also gets in the middle of her personal drama after she meets a troubled young worker participating in the project.
Both of the stories in the novel (set in the 17th and 21st centuries) are full of suspense, intrigue, eroticism, danger, and murder, but what I find most fascinating is the author’s scope of imagination and his incredible ability to get into Rembrandt’s mind. Yes, Rembrandt’s story is Davenport’s hypothesis (or wish, if you will), but it’s written in such convincing detail that you can’t help believing that those were the actual thoughts, words, emotions, and actions of the great painter of the 17th century, renowned for his unique technique.
There is an interesting parallel between Rembrandt and Amy: their view on art is quite similar. They both refuse to be slaves of fashionable trends in painting, but prefer realism, believing that “the pure portrait is bound to contain the truth of the painter and the painted. It cannot lie.” 252
Just as Rembrandt tried to capture his sitter’s essence in a portrait, so does Amy strive to grasp the core of a person’s nature in her work.
Amy likes aged faces, saying that “the marks time leaves make a face more interesting.” (Talk about the present-day obsession with Botox injections, huh? 🙂
My favorite lines: “There is not one duty I owe to the world, but I do owe myself the duty of extending my art to the uttermost boundary of its potential and that can be done only by practicing it.” 14
“A man must limit the objects of his attention if he is to approach perfection.” 15
I didn’t particularly like the ending of The Painter, but otherwise, I enjoyed the novel immensely.