The novel centers on a community of artists who lived and worked in Skagen, a small fishing village on the northern tip of Denmark, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I had never heard of the Skagen Painters before, and I'm grateful to the novel for introducing me to them. Reading it is like stepping into an Impressionist painting: full of light and color, and enhanced with sophisticated touches that bring the characters and era to life.
|Fishermen Hauling Nets, P.S. Krøyer (1883)|
|Sewing Fisherman's Wife|
Anna Ancher (1890)
She falls in love with Søren Krøyer, an older man who's the leading light of the Danish art world, and they marry. Despite her independent spirit, however, Marie's traditional upbringing doesn't fit in with the bohemian ways of her husband's friends. The others have affairs, raise one another's children, and adjust to sudden changes in their unconventional lifestyles with an ease that baffles Marie. Her inner conflict in this respect is skillfully conveyed.
|Summer Evening on Skagen's Beach, P.S. Krøyer (1899); portraits of artist and wife|
The plot moves between Skagen, Copenhagen, Paris, Sicily, and elsewhere in Europe, following the artists and their extended families as they form romantic connections, have families of their own, and create breathtaking works of art.
|Hip, Hip, Hurrah!, Peder Severin Krøyer (1888);|
many of the novel's characters are depicted here
The relationship between art and real life is one of the novel's strongest themes, and Parkinson's literary re-creations of the painters' masterworks are a joy to read. Some are spontaneous creations, such as Søren Krøyer's depiction of his wife and Anna Ancher taking an evening walk on the beach following their friends' anniversary celebration:
|Summer Evening on the Skagen Southern Beach, P.S. Krøyer (1893), |
with portraits of Marie Krøyer and Anna Ancher
Søren sat with Michael on the beach, amidst the debris of the feast, and watched the slow progress of the women away from them, still conversing, into the blue.
Not all of the poses are so casually arranged, however. Martha Johansen, Anna's long-suffering cousin, feels very frustrated by the presence of a Christmas tree in her messy house for months after the holiday - all because her husband Viggo can't get his painting to turn out right.
|Merry Christmas, Viggo Johansen (1891)|
And the children, shuffled from place to place while their parents journey abroad for inspiration or simple R&R... they bear some of the heaviest burdens of all.
|Midsummer's Eve Bonfire on Skagen's Beach, P.S. Krøyer (1906)|
If you enjoy how novelists like Susan Vreeland, Tracy Chevalier, and Stephanie Cowell render art into lyrical prose, this is the book for you. It's best read with images of the paintings within easy access; I found that this enhanced the reading experience for me. See the Wikipedia page for additional paintings and links to individual artists, or the Skagens Museum for historical background, details on technique, and more images.
Painted Ladies was published by New Island Books (Ireland) in October in paperback (£12.99, 326pp) and is available at Book Depository. Siobhán Parkinson is the current Laureate na nÓg (Children's Laureate) of Ireland; this is her second novel for adults.