Novels based on the lives of famous artists are not in short supply. Amongst the best known of this genre are: The Moon and Sixpence (Gauguin) by W. Somerset Maugham; Girl With a Pearl Earring (Vermeer) by Tracy Chevalier; The Agony and the Ecstasy (Michelangelo) and Lust for Life (Van Gogh) by Irving Stone. Each of these ‘biopics’ was subsequently made into movies that proved highly successful at the box office indicating that this form of literary ‘faction’ is a popular genre.
However, a recently published novel based loosely on the Dutch Master, Rembrandt, comes with an interesting twist in so far as the author is himself an accomplished professional painter and this is his first novel. His insights into what it is like to live the life of an artist give RHL, The Man in the Mirror its particular and unique nuances and perspectives. Jim Dales studied Fine Art at Maidstone College of Art in the mid-1960s, and has maintained his practice as a professional artist for almost half a century. He creates drawings, paintings and prints employing both traditional and experimental techniques and materials. Dales’ work has been exhibited in galleries across the world, with many pieces now in private collections in England, France, Spain, Denmark, Australia and the USA.
Earlier this year, Dales’ debut novel, RHL, The Man in the Mirror, was published. As might be expected, given his extensive experience in studio practice, the novel is rich in visual observation, descriptions of the tactile aspects of painting and printmaking and references to the smells that are strongly associated with art materials and processes. One of the aims of the author was to draw upon his personal experience to counter the romantic view of what being an artist is like. Yes, there are the exhilarating and rewarding moments that arise from the challenges and frustrations of creative production, but we also witness the sometimes routine and boring aspects of life in the studio together with all the other matters an artist must manage – such as family relationships and the business aspect of being an artist. His book conveys a persuasive picture of what middle class life and poverty were like in Holland in the early 17th century. The presence of the Jewish philosopher Spinoza, who was living in Amsterdam when Rembrandt was the city’s most celebrated painter, provides welcome references to the intellectual and religious contexts of life in The Netherlands at that time. Art, philosophy, history, drama, and a diverse range of characters are interwoven into an intriguing narrative of love, loyalty and betrayal set in the thriving Netherlands of the seventeen century.
RHL, The Man in the Mirror does not present a flattering portrait of the man whose artistic oeuvre is universally recognised as that of an outstanding master. We observe Dales’ Rembrandt as artist, husband, father, lover, teacher, employer and businessman, a mortal with negative as well as admirable characteristics, a three-dimensional and believable character.
A great admirer of Rembrandt, Dales became particularly familiar with many of the works of the Dutch Master and his contemporaries as a result of conducting art tours to major collections with the company Inside Art Tours that he and his wife Caroline MacMichael ran for 25 years. Participants appreciated Dales’ knowledge, anecdotes, and his ‘insider’ perspectives on art. He said: “We particularly enjoyed the frisson of going to Russia where we also managed to meet artists and printmakers.”
Dales says of his debut novel ‘Although it is constructed around real incidents and characters in Rembrandt’s life, the events described are entirely imaginary.’ Dales’ Rembrandt is depicted as a misogynist, but one who possesses an extraordinary talent for painting and drawing sensitive portraits of the women in his life.
Early in the story, Rembrandt’s wife Saskia, whom he drew and painted many times, dies leaving her husband to care for their baby son, Titus. Rembrandt engages a new nurse and housekeeper, Geertje Dircx, who slowly but inevitably becomes his mistress. The artist then turns his amorous attentions to a new young maid, Hendrickje Stoffels whom Rembrandt also painted on numerous occasions. Together they formulate a plan to force Geertje out of the Rembrandt household. This succeeds but Rembrandt, who has become bankrupt, cannot deliver on a payment he had promised his former housekeeper and lover. To reveal more of the narrative would be plot spoiling, suffice it to say that Dales maintains the readers’ interest to the final page in this distinctive and highly readable portrayal of a complex man.
I asked Dales what challenges he had faced writing a novel for the first time? One key issue was that a painter usually plans and completes a work on his own, whereas writing a novel involves liaising with others, notably editors and publishers, whose inputs must be accommodated before the work is finished. Had his visual practice helped or influenced his writing in any other ways? “My paintings and prints always had a strong narrative element,” Dales replied. “It was this story telling through image that really informed my approach to writing the novel. Once the text was written, I created a collage or montage, moving the chapters around to find the most effective sequence.” This ‘collage’ makes for a rich reading experience. Using both the third person and, for a number of chapters, the first person, we are presented with varying perspectives of Rembrandt – Dales presents us with a range of perspectives of Rembrandt by deploying his mistresses, his students, and even the philosopher Spinoza as narrators for some of the chapters. They are thus effectively mirrors, reflecting different aspects of Rembrandt, a parallel to the multiple perspectives we see in Cubist portraiture.
Dales’ recent journey into new creative territory has provided a fascinating example of how artists can and do extend their creative practice both within and beyond their central activity. His next novel – Aksynia – is scheduled for publication next year.
ISBN 978-1-910130-11-7 is published by Yolk Publishing Ltd and distributed by Bertrams.
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