The Flower To The Painterby Gary Inbinder
Marcia Brownlow, a young, unemployed American governess in late nineteenth century Italy, masquerades as a man to advance her career. She adopts the persona of her dead brother Mark and becomes the protégée of Arthur Wolcott, a famous American expatriate author who discovers Marcia's artistic talent. Wolcott introduces his protégée to wealthy art patrons in Florence, Venice, Paris, and London, including three women who, deceived as to Marcia's sex, fall in love with the captivating artist. Marcia emulates her idol, the great English landscape artist William Turner. As she develops her skills, James Whistler, John Singer Sargent, and Sir Frederic Leighton, the leader of the London art establishment, praise her paintings of Florence and Venice. However, on the eve of her greatest triumph, Marcia's first love returns to threaten her with exposure and scandal.
The Flower to the Painter is...an enjoyable read – its tone delightful, its subject matter intriguing – and it should not disappoint the reader.
Alison Steadman, Halfway Down the Stairs
- Fireship Press
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- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.61(d)
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Gary Inbinder's second novel transports the reader into the elegant, commercialistic art world of late nineteenth-century Europe. Through the sharp eye of protagonist Marcia Brownlow, we float along the canals of Venice, travel by train through the Alps, and meet John Singer Sargent, Leighton, Whistler, and other memorable painters of the time. We even exchange sketches with Renoir in Montmartre. Marcia Brownlow was down on her luck when she came to Europe as a governess, a position that quickly became intolerable. Pleading her case before the wealthy aunt of her best friend, Marcia is faced with a risky but lucrative proposition. She accepts the challenge of working for a famous writer not as Marcia but as her brother, Mark. The combination of Mark's gender advantage and Marcia's artistic talent quickly propels her into a promising career. Her "unnatural" bent toward women allows to her romance her wealthy patronesses with pleasure, but only up to a certain frustrating point. Which will Marcia choose: her love or her art? Does it have to be one or the other? Inbinder's intuitive sense of the sights, sounds, and smells of the period help the reader to feel that Marcia's conflicted, quixotic adventure is their own. It's not easy for a male author to convince the reader that he's inside the head of a female narrator, but even that metaliterary tension contributes to the success of this delightful novel. In short, Inbinder's vivid language and memorable characters immerse the reader in the nineteenth-century European art scene. This book is a must-read for any art history fan as well as readers interested in a satisfying, gender-bending romance.
What I enjoyed most about Gary Inbinder’s fascinating and impeccably researched novel, THE FLOWER TO THE PAINTER (Fireship Press) was its power to make me question the feasibility of crafting art for its own sake in a world based on economics rather than aesthetics. Referring to James McNeill Whistler, Inbinder frames his delightful read within a context Whistler espoused in 1876: “The masterpiece should appear as the flower to the painter—perfect in its bud as in its bloom—with no reason to explain its presence—no mission to fulfill….” The problem was, and remains, that every artist needs to pay his bills. That blatant reality asserts itself in the development of every character save the independently wealthy in Inbinder’s enjoyable romp from Italy to France and England, back to France, Italy, and England, and finally to America between 1876 and 1878. The greats—whether Renoir, Turner, Sargent, Leighton, Whistler, or newcomer Marcia Brownlow (the novel’s female protagonist masquerading as her brother Mark Brownlow)—along with each and every other artist, must negotiate a relationship between art and saleable art. Antithetical to poet Keats’ famous 1819 observation that truth and beauty are one and the same, Marcia/Mark opines , “Beauty is not always truth.” That statement functions as the thematic thread running through the novel in which no one is completely as he or she appears and, in fact, cannot be in order to survive. In a contrivance that succeeds marvelously, Marcia Brownlow, who has lost her position as a governess and is completely without means of support, agrees to the imperious Mrs. Kingford’s puzzling proposition that she take on her dead brother Mark’s identity and become factotum to author Arthur Wolcott. Marcia’s willingness to change her identity so as not to starve results in a series of epiphanies. First, she realizes the double standard is a powerful force. She succeeds as a painter with relative ease in her masculine pose. No such ease came to Berthe Morisot or other female painters of the day. Secondly, she is able, without too much trouble, to indulge her lesbian orientation with Lady Agatha (aka Aggie) and Princess Albertini, a lonely and wealthy widow who serves as benefactress to a number of artists. Her male “cover” allows her both mobility and freedom. The artist’s, and in this case the protagonist’s, ability to adapt to ever-vacillating financial and personal circumstances makes for a series of episodes that demonstrate again and again that diminishing one’s identity and one’s artistic point of view is required to remain afloat in the challenging and potentially deadly art and marriage markets. Inbinder’s ability to explore the socio-ethical landscape while simultaneously narrating a highly entertaining tale of an ex-pat American in the company of a plethora of splendid artists—each espousing either a tenacity for the past or a vision of the future—makes him a writer worth reading. Further, his achievement of a first-person narrative in a female voice demonstrates not only his “good ear,” but also his proven ability to write outside of assumed gender limitations. I recommend Gary Inbinder’s novel to all who enjoy art, social commentary, and superb writing.