The Underpainter

The UnderpainterIn Rochester, New York, A Seventy Five Year Old Artist, Austin Fraser, Is Creating A New Series Of Paintings Recalling The Details Of His Life And Of The Lives Of Those Individuals Who Have Affected Him His Peculiar Mother, A Young Canadian Soldier And China Painter, A First World War Nurse, The Well Known American Painter Rockwell Kent, And Sara, A Waitress From The Wilderness Mining Settlement Of Silver Islet, Ontario, Who Became Austin S Model And Mistress Spanning Than Seven Decades, From The Turn Of The Century To The Mid Seventies, The Underpainter In Range, In The Sheer Power Of Its Prose, And In Its Brilliant Depiction Of Landscape And The Geography Of Imagination Is Jane Urquhart S Most Accomplished Novel To Date, With One Of The Most Powerful Climaxes In Contemporary Fiction

She is the author of seven internationally acclaimed novels entitled, The Whirlpool, Changing Heaven, Away, The Underpainter, The Stone Carvers, A Map of Glass, and Sanctuary Line.The Whirlpool received the French Prix du Meilleur Livre tranger Best Foreign Book Award Away was winner of the Trillium Book Award and a finalist for the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award The Un

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  • Paperback
  • 368 pages
  • The Underpainter
  • Jane Urquhart
  • English
  • 06 July 2019
  • 9780140269734

10 thoughts on “The Underpainter

  1. says:

    Jane Urquhart s fourth novel is a staggering yet restrained portrait of an emotionally cold and withholding American minimalist painter, Austen Fraser, now 83 years old and reflecting on his life Born in in Rochester, NY, around the turn of the twentieth century, his fertile experiences took place in New York, Ontario, and a tiny island called Silver Islet on Lake Superior in Canada.He was influenced by two eminent artists with diametrically opposed views Rockwell Kent, who believed that art and life were exuberant mirrors of each other, and Robert Henri, who had the most austere philosophy toward art isolate, don t share your vision or your heart, keep it all for your art Fraser s turmoil has roots in his internal struggle to choose which artist to emulate philosophically.The novel, written from Fraser s point of view, resonates with a haunting, glacial regret and deep sorrow, a Munch scream in the gloaming of his life The layers of the novel are stunning, astonishing, and cohere and accrete in an evocative inversion to the artist s style of painting Urquhart s writing commands this novel so eloquently, so exquisitely, I felt Fraser s old bones nearly shatter on the icy, boreal frontiers of his life.Each character is finely, lucidly drawn, nuanced men and women that pierce the landscape with immeasurable poignancy and stoic hearts They are so well developed that they live in my heart like imperishable ghosts Sarah Pengelly was Fraser s model for fifteen years, a steadfast miner s daughter living in obscurity in an outpost island Fraser stole from her while never giving of himself her flesh, the muscular sinew of her calf, the soft vulnerability of her wrist, her mouth, her color, her shadow.He met George Kearns in Ontario, a painter of china who managed his father s china shop Fraser held George in mild contempt, accusing him of not being a real artist Fraser barely scratched the surface of his dearest friend, so busy was he being an arrogant artist and self made enigmatic recluse He never knew the carnage that Kearns witnessed in WW1, but George s friend, Augusta Moffet, knew Kearns shares a deep, melancholic suffering with this war nurse that underscores the story with a lethal glow that, ironically, haunts the reader with its almost imperceptible defiance of the narrator.Jane Urquhart is the daughter of a prospector mining engineer, which explains the mining motif and landscape she uses so fluently in several of her books Art is a kind of miningThe artist a variety of prospector searching for the sparkling silver of meaning in the earth And Urquhart uses a keen blend of environment and social observance to render her landscape There is always a moment of wholeness, recollected when the world is torn, raw edged, broken apart, a moment when the tidiness, the innocence of landscape sometimes of the society that created the landscape allows you to predict with accuracy the discord to come This is a complex, gradually disclosing story of epic loss, and also a terrifying confession of a man who, over the course of the novel, discloses himself intimately, all his ugly, disturbing truths, so that you know him, hate him, pity him, in all his superciliousness and you will be moved, possibly, to forgive him.

  2. says:

    The Art of ConcealmentThe strange title of this prizewinning novel is explained gradually over the course of the book Its protagonist Austin Fraser, a highly successful American artist, has adopted an unusual approach to his mature works Although he begins each painting in the realistic style of the landscapes and nude studies of his Canadian model Sara Pengelly with which he originally made his name, he now paints over this underpainting with concealing glazes and even white impasto, so that only the faintest outlines of the original remain Although Urquhart has several real artists appear in the book, among them the great teacher Robert Henri and that Hemingway of the frozen North, Rockwell Kent, she does not identify Austin Fraser with any real life original, but it is not hard to imagine his new style fitting in with mid century Abstract Expressionists such as Clyfford Still or the painted over images of Robert Rauschenberg Trained as an art historian herself and twice married to artists, Urquhart knows art the insight into the painter s craft is one of the deep pleasures of her book.More importantly, though, Fraser s painting style is a metaphor for his emotional detachment What he would describe in Robert Henri s words as the necessary distance between the painter and his model, is in fact a refusal to allow himself to feel, deliberately removing himself from a situation until there is almost no connection left Not for nothing are his late paintings known as the erasure series it is himself that he is rubbing out Nowhere is this clear than in his relationship with Sara Pengelly, a waitress in a hotel in the Canadian village of Silver Islet, at the tip of the Sleeping Giant peninsula jutting out into Lake Superior Even though Sara becomes his model, lover, and companion over the course of fifteen summers on the Canadian shore, and he knows every inch of her body, he is reluctant to penetrate her mind, and deflects all her attempts to reach his own While we can understand Fraser as an artist, and perhaps if we are honest recognize a similar need for self protection in ourselves, he nonetheless comes over as the least warm of Urquhart s protagonists, though one of the most fascinating.The novel is contained entirely in memory with no significant action in the present time This is unusual for Jane Urquhart, although her most recent novel, Sanctuary Line, comes close Memory, however, is one of the persistent themes in Urquhart s work, as are art, imagination and the supernatural, immigration, the Great Lakes landscape, the disappearance of former lifestyles and places, and the effects of war, all of which have a place in this story As in The Stone Carvers, the novel that would follow this, the war in question is World War I, which draws in the two other members with Austin and Sara of the quartet around whom the novel revolves These are George Kearns, a young Canadian china painter, and Augusta Moffatt, a wartime nurse who becomes George s lover George is the antithesis of Austin as an artist, painting charming miniatures on cups and thimbles it is only gradually that Austin realizes what his friend has to teach him as a human being, and by then we have already reached the searing climax of the book Augusta is a less clear figure at first, though she eventually emerges with clarity than Sara, with features that distinguish many of Urquhart s heroines strength, sensitivity, a lonely childhood, and the power of second sight Though pursuing obscure occupations in a Canadian backwater, George and Augusta have been thorough the mill of experience, and thus act as a contrast to Austin who remains on the sidelines throughout.The sideline aspect is something that may make some readers enjoy The Underpainter less than Urquhart s active novels, such as Away, Changing Heaven, or A Map of Glass It is an interior book in which very little happens But Austin Fraser s journey into the frozen depths of his soul will have results in his final work, the underpainting will remain uncovered.

  3. says:

    I m still wrestling with my thoughts on this novel and I ll use this post to help pin them to the mat, or should I say, the canvasThe Underpainter was a tough read, at times, yet rewarding Tough because the story is told using summary narrative throughout, from the POV of the protagonist, an aging, self centered and rather selfish man recounting his life So there aren t many if any full scenes in this story but rather several half scenes to show what he s telling us.Yet the prose is lyrical and smooth and lovely, making the abundant details of setting and of the protag s incessant introspections and observations, pleasant for the most part to read.There is not much here in terms of plot or story arc, but the vivid characters are interesting and have us caring for how they will fare And this, in my opinion, shows great skill by the author, given the confining style of storytelling she used That is, using mostly summary narrative with a first person POV The novel dragged slowly near its middle, but by the end, I felt I d participated in the life of this unhappy man, and got to know his entourage And it s a sad life It portrays the chicken shit side of all of us The part that encourages us to remain staid observers rather than diving in, heart first The Underpainter is a story that will haunt this reader for a long while.

  4. says:

    I can t explain why this book fascinated me, but it carried me along with its dark story of self absorption and fear of participation in life Metaphorically, the Underpainter is a part of all of us that part that holds us down, until we look in the mirror and see that we ve grown old Profound.

  5. says:

    Beautiful descriptive writing Excruciatingly stupid plotline.The premise is all right a painter is musing over his life, which he spent going back and forth from the city to spending his summers in a tiny town, painting his landlady He muses for a LONG time about how he would be subtly cruel to her enjoying her discomfort, posing her for hours and not letting her move, thinking of her as nothing, having sex with her and covering her body entirely with his own so that she couldn t move, etc and the story see saws between how nasty he was and the life of a man in the town, a simple china painter.This was not done well.

  6. says:

    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 the 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.

  7. says:

    A friend recommended this book to me as I traveled to Thunder Bay, Ontario for a short trip It was the perfect place to be reading this book staying on the 4th floor of the Prince Arthur Hotel looking out from my bed at the Sleeping Giant each morning and evening.A significant part of this story takes place in Silver Islet, located on the Sleeping Giant peninsula and I was actually reading the part about Sarah coming across the frozen lake on the skiis while in the Prince Arthur Hotel betting that I was in the very same room that Austin was watching Sarah from It was just so cool I loved the tensions in this book and I also loved how Jane Urquhart got me to hate Austin so much One of my favs for sure.

  8. says:

    4.5 So what So many gleaming moments Not as great novel y as Away, which I ve read twice and which has profoundly influenced my thinking about who North Americans are as a people and a culture Still a terrific read Okay, you have to give it 20 pages to find its stride And okay, the narrator is a prick Nevertheless, somehow, the book absolutely sings I ve reviewed several other books that have explored the role of ruthlessness in the life of the artist the need to keep an emotional distance in order to push art into the world Colm Toibin s The Master, Claire Messud s The Woman Upstairs are two that come to mind This book s narrator is another who has gone that route, though at least one of his friends, another famous and perhaps fundamentally successful, artistically, painter, is indeed a man of great passion Because The Underpainter does not allow us to see Rockwell Kent as fully the narrator does not really see anyone very clearly this is one of the tradeoffs Urquhart had to make , or his art unless we know it or are able to visit it somewhere or can get enough of a sense of it by Googling , we can t really make enough of judgment about which path gets you where Though of course we ve got our own instincts, and we know what the narrator has come to believe or at least suspect After all, he does paint it it all, underneath He just buries it One wonders at the collectors who buy Austin Fraser s art The work of a man who never went to war, but who sat and listened to the stories of those who did Though even those took an awful long time to sink in why are you still shell shocked ten years after the war, my friend Painted them, and then buried the images under layers and layers of glaze and then layers and layers of white paint What better way to characterize North American culture Cold as hell, Rockwell Kent says, cold as hell Are we

  9. says:

    It took a little time to get into this book, as it jumps around in time and introduces characters in brief, tantalizing vignettes with hints that they are related but no clear indications for the longest time where the pivotal incidents of the novel will be The build to the resolution of all these threads is slow but masterfully crafted The main character is not at all sympathetic initially this seems quite intentional and perverse, but gradually I started to feel a sad compassion for him and all he had missed in his life The book s title is explained in the very end as the proposed title for a picture that he is contemplating that will act as a summary of his life, but early on as I was reading about his use of the technique of underpainting, it was already starting to feel like a description of his life, where every human experience was overlaid with dogma and emotional repression and obscured from view underlived, you could say It s the people in his life that he failed to see and get to know despite years of friendship who become so compelling and vivid, so tragic in their nobility, so sharply in contrast with this emotionally dead man so central to their lives I loved the way all the disparate elements were so successfully and meaningfully pulled together in the end Not a happy ending, but certainly satisfying.

  10. says:

    I m not quite finished yet, but tThis appears to be one ginormous Metaphor stretched like canvas to the ripping point over the rickety frame of a character portrait A portrait, that is, of the artist as a pathologically egocentric, arrogant, callous youth who, despite his dawning self awareness as he approaches death, appears to have lots of regrets but little remorse Unless something unbelievable happens in the next 40 pages which given the pace so far would be shocking indeed , I m not sure he s going to redeem himself ETA Aug 1 09 It didn t.Is Jane Urquhart one of the overrated Canadian writers, or am I just excessively grumpy these days I do recall liking The Stone Carvers but right now, couldn t tell you why I also think I ve read this one before, but it obviously left no impression on me Not sure why I seem to feel drawn to this author, but I come away with no lasting memory of any of her novels Does this happen to anyone else, or am I just a really lazy reader

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