Willem Jan Otten – The Portrait

I must confess to feeling a little bit uneasy when I read a blurb saying this has echoes of Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Picture of Dorian Grey as I felt this could only pale in comparison. I was delighted when I actually read it and realised it’s one of the best books I’ve read in some time.

The book uses a very clever narrator who wonders when the moment will come to become something, to be fully realised. The method of narration gives us a window in the world of art that would rarely be open to us in fiction or otherwise.

The artist is a man of some renown, famed for his portraits. He has the ability to focus on the things people would possibly want to hide. Those that admire is work feel they really know the people in the portrait. His talent brings him to the attention of a wealthy man who requests for him to draw from death rather than life for the first time. He’s been working through his paintings, thinking of how many more he needs to raise the money to buy the property he wants. The funds from this commission prove impossible to turn down.

He realises that everyone he paints will die and he’s thinking throughout about how people will be viewing paintings after the subjects have died. These people he usually paints may be alive now but what way will they be seen in the future? The narrator is willing him on to make something that affects people and will mean something to those that have lost people. The painter wants to capture the eyes, the notion of looking, something that’s not available to him as the person isn’t present. Speech is also more important than he’d previously thought and of course it isn’t available in this case.

When he finishes the piece his wife sees there’s someone else in the picture. The book really highlights how we bring our own experiences to art, even in a picture of another person we have things we want to put across, we’re always drawing on our own lives.

The Portrait presents questions about the nature of existence, of humanity, of the fear of death and of money and ownerships. It asks about who we are, what we want to be and what we want to bring into the world. The story reveals itself brilliantly over the short length of this book and we see how people see a situation differently based on their perspective and what they’re bringing to it. It’s a great book that’ll stay etched in the head for a long time.

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