The Woman in the Painting by Kerry Postle

Of the major Renaissance artists, I think Raphael is probably slightly less well known than Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. In Kerry Postle’s novel The Woman in the Painting she explores not only the life and work of the man himself but the story of his mistress and model, Margarita Luti. It is thought that Margarita, known as La Fornarina, may have been the subject of Raphael’s painting of the same name and although we don’t know this for certain, Postle takes this theory as the basis for the novel.

We see the relationship between Raphael and Margarita develop through the eyes of Pietro, a young man who, at the beginning of the novel, has just become an apprentice to the artist Sebastiano Luciani (later known as Sebastiano del Piombo). Although Pietro’s duties are limited to cleaning brushes and grinding pigments, he works hard and learns from his master and the more experienced apprentices, but despite knowing that he has been given a wonderful opportunity, he can’t help feeling that Sebastiano’s paintings lack true greatness. Following an accident in the workshop, Pietro is dismissed from his position and thrown out into the street, where he is rescued by Margarita, one of Sebastiano’s models. It is when Pietro is offered a new apprenticeship with Raphael, who is newly arrived in Rome, that Margarita is introduced to Raphael for the first time.

It’s not long before Margarita is sitting for Raphael’s paintings and beginning to fall in love with the artist, but as a woman from a humble background – she’s the daughter of a baker – she is not seen as a suitable wife for Raphael. Meanwhile Pietro is also finding himself attracted to Raphael and the affection he had first felt for Margarita soon turns to jealousy.

I enjoyed The Woman in the Painting, although I think I might have preferred it to have been narrated by Margarita. I felt that the choice of Pietro as narrator held me at a distance from Raphael and Margarita and stopped me from fully understanding their relationship and the emotions involved. The focus instead was more on Pietro’s feelings of envy and resentment and the ways in which he acted on these feelings to try to cause trouble for Margarita and get closer to Raphael himself. Still, Pietro was a complex and very human character and although I didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for him, I couldn’t actually dislike him either.

I didn’t really know a lot about Raphael before I started to read this book, so I found that I was learning a lot from it. The descriptions of the day to day work of the artist and his apprentices in the studio particularly interested me. As recently as 2001, X-ray analysis showed that the woman depicted in La Fornarina had originally worn a ruby ring on her finger which was painted over at some point. There is no historical proof for the explanation Postle gives for this in the novel, but it works in the context of the story. We also see, from Pietro’s perspective, the political situation in Rome at that time and get to know some of the historical figures of the period, including not only Raphael, Michelangelo and Sebastiano, but also Agostino Chigi, Raphael’s patron, and Cardinal Bibbiena, to whose niece Raphael was engaged.

This is the first Kerry Postle novel I’ve read, but I see she has written a few others including The Artist’s Muse, about Gustav Klimt and his model Wally Neuzil. Has anyone read that one and what did you think?

Thanks to HQ Digital for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

12 thoughts on “The Woman in the Painting by Kerry Postle

  1. whatmeread says:

    I think they missed an opportunity with that cover. It looks like any old romance novel. They could have used the painting, like they did with Girl with a Pearl Earring. In fact, then people would know what painting it’s about.

  2. Lark says:

    I love reading historical fiction books about artists and their work. I haven’t read any by this author however. I’ll have to check her out. 🙂

  3. setinthepast says:

    I read the Klimt one just over a year ago, because I was reading books on Vienna during a Christmas market trip there. Remember when Christmas market visits and trips abroad were things you could actually do?! I remember our history teacher asking people which Renaissance artists they’d heard of, and everyone chorusing “Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raffaello, Donatello”!

  4. Judy Krueger says:

    I love novels about artists! I am actually probably too forgiving about some of them because I find so much to be interested in and learn. I have read at least two books about Klimt, though of course I can’t remember the titles at this time. I also like how the politics of Rome is worked in. Thanks for your review!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, sometimes if you’re learning a lot from a book it makes up for any flaws with the actual story. I’ve never read about Klimt before so I might try Kerry Postle’s book.

  5. jessicabookworm says:

    Shame that you didn’t love the choice of narrator – I think Margarita sounds like she would have been a better choice. However I love the sound of the setting and finding out more about Raphael, art and this time period. I hope you will have the chance to read more by this author. 🙂

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