Portraits of an Artist

Written by Mary F. Burns
Review by Michaela MacColl

Portraits of an Artist is a novel about portraitist John Singer Sargent. Spanning 1882-1885, it follows Sargent’s intimate circle of friends through Europe. Sargent painted some of his most famous work during this period, including Madame X.  The story is told from multiple points of view, including that of some of Sargent’s models, male and female lovers, and members of his family.

Burns’ narrators introduce the reader to the society of painters and writers in Paris, Venice and Florence. Her use of historical details is impressive, and she relies heavily on primary source materials to inform the text, which often calls to mind one of Henry James’s novels about expatriates in Europe.  However, the narrators tend to lack distinctive voices and often strike the same foreboding note of scandal yet to come. The author’s fidelity to the historical record detracts from the fictional aspect. A subplot about the daughter of Sargent’s closest friend is invented, and the author doesn’t quite successfully integrate this story into the rest of the work. Overall, Portraits is an interesting novel about a fascinating group of people.