An Artist in Her Own Right

Written by Ann Marti Friedman
Review by Jasmina Svenne

From a young age, Augustine Dufresne aspires to be an artist in her own right. However, born in Paris during the first year of the French Revolution, she grows up and matures in turbulent times. When circumstances lead her to marry Antoine-Jean Gros, a much older painter celebrated for his large-scale paintings of Napoleon’s triumphs, her struggle to be taken seriously as an artist is only just beginning.

This debut novel is the fictional memoir of a real woman who has been pushed to the margins of history. It is obvious a great deal of meticulous research has gone into this work, particularly on the lives and difficulties of female artists during the Napoleonic era. I did wonder at first whether the detached tone in which Augustine’s youth is described more closely resembled the tone in which an impartial biographer might describe their subject, rather than that of a middle-aged woman looking back on her passionate youth and lost love. On two separate occasions, for instance, we are told that “I was very excited”, but the measured prose of the surrounding paragraphs doesn’t really generate a sense of excitement. But the book grew on me as I went along until I wondered whether the detachment was deliberate – a part of the characterisation of the embittered narrator, who is no longer able to remember exactly how it felt to be young. There is an informative historical note at the end of the book, explaining what exactly is known about Augustine and where facts have been tweaked for artistic purposes.

An unusual perspective on the world of art at a pivotal moment in history.