Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Siobhán Parkinson's Painted Ladies: A review with illustrations

I came across Siobhán Parkinson's Painted Ladies while browsing the historical fiction listings at Book Depository and purchased it on impulse.  It turned out to be a wonderful decision.

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)
Painted Ladies also possesses a strong historical framework, although the author states up front that she's taken some license with regard to names, dates, events, and interpretations of characters' emotions and motives.

Sewing Fisherman's Wife
Anna Ancher (1890)
At top, on the book's cover, is Marie Triepke Krøyer Alfvén, the novel's central figure.  The story opens in 1888, when Marie first arrives in Paris from Copenhagen as a young and enthusiastic art student, and ends with her second marriage in 1905.  (Not a spoiler; this event is hinted at in the prologue.)  While in Paris, she meets up with other Danish artists gathered there, most notably Michael and Anna Ancher, and becomes part of their circle.  Uncommonly beautiful, Marie struggles to be noticed for her talent rather than her looks.

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
Anna Ancher becomes Marie's closest female friend, and intervening sections reveal her backstory.  The only one of their close-knit group to be born in Skagen, she grows up the daughter of a large family who owns Brøndums Hotel, and her talent becomes visible at an early age. (I wish the novel had given us more of Anna, as she seemed the most emotionally grounded character.) Both Marie and Anna are fortunate in that their parents support their artistic efforts.

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
Skagen appeals to them not only for its seaside landscapes - the interplay of sunlight, sand, and water is a favorite subject - but for the rustic way of life led by its fishermen, who figure in numerous paintings.  Parkinson adds a touch of irony in this respect, for while the locals willingly serve as models at first, their tolerance grows thin when they have to clean up champagne glasses tossed carelessly onto the beach after a late-night party.

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
After the feasting was done and most of the guests had left, Marie took a walk with Anna along the water's edge in the long evening light.  The sea was blue and silver and the sand was silver and blue.  The strolling women in their best party frocks inclined their heads to one another in a gesture of tenderness that excluded the world ... Mystery hung, like the evening star, in the light, silvery air.  

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)
The novel dips into the viewpoints of many of the artists, as well as those of their wives and lovers (and their wives' lovers, in some cases).  Emmy, third wife of poet/artist Holger Drachmann, is one of several women who discover that romantic involvement with an artist isn't all it's cracked up to be, and their plights are rendered with dexterity.

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)
Painted Ladies draws to a close not long after a large gathering of the denizens of the Skagen colony at a party on the beach, complete with the lighting of the St. John's Eve bonfire. At first I found the ending overly abrupt and off-putting.  Now that I've had time to reflect, I find it fitting, particularly in how it shows how Marie has weathered the emotional changes in her life.  On that, I'll say no more and suggest you read the book!

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.


  1. I had seen only one of those paintings before. Maybe because I write about a society blocked from the sun, my main impression was just how rich and luscious the sunlight is in these works of art! It's richer in some ways than in Vermeer.

  2. I'm off to Book Depository . . . .

  3. I've seen one of the paintings before, although I didn't remember where at first. Turns out it was on a historical fiction book cover! These are some of the most beautiful paintings I've seen, especially the ones of Skagen's beach.

    Just noticed my link to BD was incorrect and fixed it (oops). Hope you like the book as much as I did.

  4. While I have no qualms with a book ending suddenly, I have found that books that try to "paint" the art into the story don't sit well with me. I don't know if it's a personal style issue with the few books I've read of the kind (two, maybe three), but I tend to avoid books of this kind. The background sounds fascinating, though. I'm now curious to read more on the subject!

  5. I know what you mean, and fortunately in this case the details on the creation of the paintings were inserted unobtrusively; the actual creative process wasn't included, although the artists' observations were, along with background on their daily lives. If I hadn't been searching for details on the art online, I doubt I'd have noticed that anything had been "painted in"!

  6. The artists illicit relationships reminds me of The Wayward Muse by Elizabeth Hickey (although I'm quite confident that Parkinson has given more justice to that complex theme.)

    I really enjoy historical fiction especially art fiction and Vreeland and Chevalier are awesome! ^_^

    May I please recommend Arabella Edge's The God of Spring? It's about the French painter Gericault and his process of painting The Raft of Medusa. ^_^

  7. Thanks for the recommendation. I haven't yet read The Wayward Muse, but I've read The Painted Kiss (about Klimt and his muse) and enjoyed it.

    I'll have to put Arabella Edge's book on my wishlist. I had been a little leery of it because of the dark and disturbing subject, but if it's that good of a novel, I'll take another look!

  8. I enjoyed The Painted Kiss too. ^_^ Interestingly, Hickey seems to like irresponsible and unconventional artists in her work. Haha!

    About The God of Spring - yes, it's dark and disturbing. But what I like most about the novel is Gericault's astonishing passion for his art. I'm an amateur artist but I really can't see myself doing what he did even if I'm already a pro. I still hope you'll like it, though. ^_^

  9. Irresponsible, unconventional artists are always interesting to write about. They're not as easy to live with though!

    I can see it must have taken a lot of passion and personal strength to create the work of art he did. I may avoid reading it late at night is all :)