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The Portrait Hardcover – April 21, 2005


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (April 21, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573222984
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573222983
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.9 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,266,841 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Justly praised for his complex historical thrillers (An Instance of the Fingerpost; The Dream of Scipio), Pears scales down to a simple tale of vengeance told by a narrator obsessed with destroying the man he once called his friend and mentor. Henry MacAlpine has abandoned his comfortable life as a celebrated portraitist in early 1900s London and fled to a tiny island off the coast of Brittany. To that lonely spot he lures William Naysmith, the British art world's most famous critic, with the promise of painting his portrait. In the course of the narrative, MacAlpine recalls the development of his artistic talent with the advice and praise of the ambitious Naysmith. The suspense lies in the gradual revelation of Naysmith's ruthless use of power, yet the double crime for which MacAlpine holds him accountable comes as little surprise. While this novel never approaches the sly cleverness and tingling suspense of John Lanchester's A Debt toPleasure, which it otherwise resembles, readers will enjoy some period ironies, as when MacAlpine expresses contempt for the upstart French Impressionists, while the contemptible Naysmith discerns their true genius. Anybody in the business of criticism, whether it be artistic or literary, will be chastened by Pears's indictment of a critic's power to make or ruin reputations.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Who would have thought a 200-page monologue about art could be so fascinating? Yet Pears has pulled it off with panache. A little less sprawling and complicated than Pears’s acclaimed An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio (HHH Nov/Dec 2002), and yet richer and more satisfying than his Jonathan Argyll mystery series, The Portrait is just that—a portrait of a single episode, a single monologue. Though most reviewers bent over backwards not to reveal the "surprise" ending, the finale will not really come as a great shock. Still, Pears is no less learned, skilled, crafty, or acclaimed than the two men who sit at the center of this novel, and readers will relish a few hours in Pears’s capable hands.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

Customer Reviews

The book glows with colour, the subtle highlights of the artist's brush.
Ingrid Heyn
At the very end the narrator indicates a complete turnabout in his view of one of the characters that he has created.
Arnold H. Slotkin
One is treated to a smorgasbord of art history, art technique, and a peek at the role and power of the art critic.
J. C. Adkins

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By sb-lynn TOP 500 REVIEWER on May 1, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This short novel is by one of my favorite writers, Iain Pears. His novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost, goes down as one of my favorite all time reads.

His newest novel, The Portrait, is well written, and intriguing. Saying that, it has its problems.

Summary, no spoiler:

This story is told entirely by the narration of a painter named Henry MacAlpine. Henry now lives in isolation on an island off the coast of France, and has agreed paint a portrait of his old friend and nemesis, William Nasmyth, a famous art critic. The story takes place over a series of days in the year 1913.

As Henry paints this portrait, he reminisces about his relationship with William, and the book is told entirely in the form of a monologue from Henry.

The book is filled with a sense of menace, as Henry recalls past events and relationships, and it becomes clear that Something Bad might happen.

The story is well told, but because of its form, this monologue, I found it a rather slow read, and had to put it down at times lest it become tedious.

In the hands of most other authors, this book would've lost steam early on....but Pears is such an adept writer that he manages to keep you hooked.

Highly recommended, and yes, the ending is a goody.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on May 1, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In a change of pace from his previous intricately plotted and lengthy novels, 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 in exile for several years.

As he paints Nasmyth's portrait during the course of several days, MacAlpine addresses him 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 reveals the sordid details of Nasmyth's life and ego-driven personality, which he intends to use in the portrait, a triptych--his view of Nasmyth as he was, as he is now, and as he will be.

The artist, articulate and observant, feels totally realistic, a person we come to know, not by what he says, but by what he implies and then forces us to conclude. Nasmyth, we see, loves power, the making or breaking of artists. MacAlpine's 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. Gradually, the reader becomes aware that MacAlpine intends to make Nasmyth pay for past crimes, and though the reader may figure out generally how the novel will conclude, Pears has saved some surprises. When the novel draws to its close, the reader feels the rightness of the conclusion.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Jamie McMahan on August 10, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Having read and been a great fan of Pears' two previous novels "An Instance of the Fingerpost" and "The Dream of Scipio", both much more voluminous than his latest novel. I thought picking up the much shorter book for a quick read was worth the time and money and most assuredly it was. "The Portrait" is an intriguingly intimate yarn centering around a reclusive painter's decision to accept a commission to paint a portrait of an art critic and former acquaintance. The writer interjects the reader into the artist's small studio on a remote and rugged island off the coast of France and begins to unveil a tale which keeps the reader's attention by becoming evermore dark and suspenseful. I must confess, I did find the plot to be a wee bit transparent by the middle of the novella, but didn't find that that diminished the book in the slightest as I felt as a reader that the plot is almost not as important as the dynamic of artist versus critic which is so expertly written and most certainly applies not only to the characters in the book, but also in a broader and more general sense as a debate between art versus criticism in general, and I might add not a bad little novella of suspense to boot, peppered with wry wit and some of the most well written and quotable lines I have read in any novel as of late. In short I would definitely highly recommend "The Portrait", and would add that any reader who likes this novel and hasn't read any other of the author's works might find it well worth the time to dig into Pears' lengthier tomes.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By B. Capossere TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 16, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Pears pulls off a difficult task in The Portrait, asking his readers to stay with a single spoken monologue uninterrupted by descriptive passages, internal monologues, or conversation with other characters. In the hands of a lesser writer this easily could have been a disaster, but Pears handles it with aplomb.

The speaker is Henry MacAlpine, a well-known and successful portraitist from early 1900's London who years ago abandoned all of that to live a stripped down life on a tiny rough island off the coast of Brittany. The listener is his long-time (though they've had no contact for years) friend/mentor/nemesis William Naysmith, England's foremost art critic come to the island to sit for a second portrait by MacAlpine.

Over the course of several days, through MacAlpine's uninterrupted speech, we learn how MacAlpine became an artist, how the two men met, how Naysmith first mentored then befriended then betrayed MacAlpine, why MacAlpine left London for his island. What we don't learn, not until the very end (and no, I won't be telling you), is why Naysmith came to the island to sit for the portrait, why he continues to sit during MacAlpine's often angry and insulting ranting, or why MacAlpine agreed to paint him and continues to do so.

These questions lend a bit of suspense and mystery to the work, though to be honest the major mystery is pretty easily deduced quite early in the book. As is the book's conclusion. The pleasure, however, is not in the destination but the journey.
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