By Lynn Bushell
Out now from Sandstone Press
Opening in Paris during World War I, Painted Ladies, by Lynn Bushell, is the fictionalised story of a real love triangle. The man is painter Pierre Bonnard, the women are his longterm mistress and muse, Marthe, and the much younger Renée, initially recruited as a model, but eventually his lover.
There is no question that Marthe was vitally important to Bonnard’s work, or that his portraits of her—most famously in the bath—helped make his name. Bushell’s acknowledgements explain that she worked from biographies of Bonnard, and extrapolated the rest using her imagination. It’s what every author turning fact into fiction must do, especially when their focus is the person whose life has been less carefully examined. (That person is usually female.)
Here, Bushell depicts a couple who are steadfast and devoted, but after twenty-five years, it is a relationship characterised by routine rather than excitement. They are struggling to come to terms with the ageing process, both physically and emotionally. Despite the decades of intimacy that precede our meeting them, what’s most noticeable in Bushell’s telling is their emotional repression—which will surely intrigue anyone who Googles his paintings of a younger Marthe, splayed and unselfconscious on a bed or in her boudoir.
Even so, Bushell’s Marthe reveals that Bonnard’s never said he loves her, and she’s 100% certain that his artistic practise means more to him than she ever will. With her rooted to home and hearth in the Paris suburbs, and Bonnard commuting to his Paris studio, the set up is ripe for an extracurricular affair.
In 1893 Bonnard accosted Marthe on the rue du Bac, changing the course of her life. In 1917, when the book begins, it’s Renée’s turn. He spots her in the street and follows her into the department store where she works the perfume counter. Hers is a constricted life: away from the store she shares a flat—and bed—with Marguerite, a controlling, jealous woman who deploys an abuser’s repertoire of coercive control tactics to keep the girl under her thumb. Modelling for Bonnard is the first secret Renée keeps from Marguerite, though not one she’s able to hang on to for long.
Photo of Marthe
Alternating between the women, using close third narration for Renée’s sections, and first person for Marthe’s, Bushell deals with the rivals equitably. There are no monsters here. The joy and anguish on both sides feels authentic, and inevitably, not dissimilar. We’re able to empathise with each in turn: when loving someone gives meaning and structure to your life, bringing with it the stability you’ve longed for, it’s terrifying to feel it slipping away. Panic and distress lead to bad choices: in Renée’s case, being young and inexperienced, she’s prone to lashing out, whereas Marthe’s passivity and tendency to play the martyr work against her.
Bonnard is, as Marthe understands, devoted to art. He’s basically a good man, even a loyal man, who cherishes the inanimate objects he surrounds himself with in order to stimulate his eye. It’s tempting to speculate—and Marthe says nearly as much—that these women are primarily objects for art-making, rather than fully real to him, or at least he has to be reminded that they’re flesh, blood, and feeling. We learn that he has strayed before, but that Renée is the first serious threat to Marthe’s status. Yet Bonnard’s fastidiousness means that even an illicit love affair is conducted with as much propriety as he can muster. His greatest failure is emotional cowardice.
Bushell’s background—she studied art history, philosophy, then fine arts, and is herself an artist—comes up trumps when describing the painter at work. She offers an astute distinction between model and muse, and compellingly describes the effect of seeing your likeness depicted on canvas—not to mention the emotional recalibration required between the sense of importance a model has while sitting for a portrait, and feeling redundant once it’s completed.
Now and then Painted Ladies feels anachronistic, notably in dialogue that offers an occasional ‘would they have said that?’ jolt. Likely this was an authorial choice made to bridge the gap of 100 years. It works, since the characters feel immediate and present, drawing us in. We’re most aware that this story is set in the past while the war rages (and when Bushell alludes to the subsequent flu epidemic). The use of detail is judicious and not overdone.
With its tight focus on character, this is a potent reminder that circumstances and technologies evolve, but how we feel when we fall in love or cope with loss endures over successive generations. The past may be a foreign country, but its inhabitants are endlessly relatable.
Painted Ladies is sure to appeal to fans of Tracy Chevalier and Susan Fletcher.
Renée foreground, Marthe in profile at the side—this painting is referred to in Painted Ladies