The Painter of Spirits by Brian Stableford
published by Black Coat Press 2019
review by Sally Startup
Set in France at the very start of the twentieth century, this is a novel about occult phenomena and artistic creation. Paul Furneret, a young artist, has previously followed his symbolist training, painting imaginary subjects. Now, in 1901, Symbolism is becoming unfashionable. So, at the instigation of his friend Victor Mauvard, a banker, Paul has rented an apartment in Paris. In a change of artistic direction, he has employed a suitable model and begun work on a painting of Jean d’Arc’s martyrdom. Victor has also arranged for Paul to attempt to paint under hypnosis in a séance at Camille Flammarion’s observatory.
The event turns out to be intriguing, not only to Flammarion, the scientific observer, but to several others. These include Dr Cros, who is something of an expert on the unconscious mind; Jane de La Vaudère the writer of scandalous novels; Madame Zosima the mesmerist, and her medium, Talia. Between them, as these characters meet and converse, they help Paul to develop his own personal theories about what might be happening to him. It seems he can create portraits of the dead while under hypnosis, but some of the subjects are people he has never met. Unfortunately, he has also painted someone he does know, and love. Anguish about what this could mean torments him as he tries to continue work on the canvas of Jean d’Arc.
Paul is variously counselled by the other characters, including the world-weary artist’s model and prostitute, Juliette, for whom he has begun to feel responsible. Perhaps he is a true visionary. Perhaps his art portrays the deep workings of his own unconscious mind. Or perhaps his experience is the natural result of talent and dedication to his art. He studiously considers all possibilities without prejudice, which allows the reader to study along with him. As the tale unfolds, he must choose how to act according to the truths of his own art and life.