The Underpainter

The Underpainter

A Novel

Book - 1997
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A masterful novel by the highly praised author of Away, The Underpainter tells the story of a 75-year-old American minimalist painter who creates a new series of paintings as he remembers the details of his life and of the lives of those individuals who have affected him.
Publisher: New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Viking, 1997.
ISBN: 9780670877263
Characteristics: 1st American ed.
340 p.


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Nov 12, 2017

Three times I began to write a review of this book, only to discard all that I had written and start over in an entirely different mode.
The Underpainter could only have been written by a writer supremely confident of her powers and unconcerned at the risk of rejection -- by a publisher, readers or both. I suspect there have been readers who abandoned it after the first hundred pages or so; that would be their loss.
I cannot claim to have found it enjoyable reading in a conventional sense. There are major obstacles, mostly having to do with Austin, the narrator/protagonist, a man I found it impossible to like. He inhabits an inner life bereft of empathy, love, compassion. He is a user of the people, artifacts and surroundings that he encounters: they are all mere ingredients for his paintings. And those paintings -- especially those done late in life where all his meticulously executed detail (underpainting) is then deliberately obscured by layer upon layer of glaze -- those paintings become a metaphor for Austin himself.
In his student days, Austin fell under the influence of a teacher, Robert Henri who proclaimed that the subject of a painting is of no consequence; it's only the execution of the art that matters and everything must be sacrificed to that art. This pernicious creed appeals to Austin's self-serving sociopathic nature and governs his actions. The question that I faced as I continued reading was: Can this man come to terms with his iniquities, can he seek redemption? And if so, does he even deserve it?
In many places, Urquhart's writing is sublime, able to overcome the bleak nature of the story and illuminate the dark winter of Austin's frozen psyche. It's an impressive piece of work, greater than the sum of its parts and fully merits four stars.

WVMLStaffPicks Dec 07, 2014

This Governor General’s Award winning novel is the life story of a successful mini-malist painter who is incapable of dealing with human emotions, and the tragedies of those close to him. A brilliant portrayal of artistic isolation, love and pain.

Oct 28, 2011

Un autre livre plein de poésie. Un monde vu de l'intérieur par l'artiste.
Celui-ci est totalement absorbé par son art mais, ce faisant, il passe à côté de la vie. Il refuse de s'abandonner à ses émotions.
Un très beau livre malgré quelques longueurs.


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