A CONTEMPORARY NOVEL OFFERS AN ODDLY ROMANTIC PAINTER
ELIZABETH KOSTOVA’S expansive novel, The Swan Thieves (2010), has given us one of the most unusual painter personalities in a long history of such fictional characters.
His name is Robert Oliver. In the 1990s, he is a master painter, big and handsome as an opera singer. But meanwhile, he is so obsessed with the oil portrait of a nineteenth-century French woman that a psychiatrist has put him into a mental hospital. The possibilities are enticing, including the title itself: Swan Thieves?
The setting is Washington D.C., and the attending psychiatrist is Andrew Marlow. He is, in effect, the central character. Marlow sets out to solve the mystery behind the painter’s mania. The mania became public when Oliver attempted to shred a painting in the National Gallery of Art, his knife-wielding hand deflected by a guard (After this, the police handed him over to the D.C. psychiatric system).
It will take the entire novel to reveal a kind of dual aspect to Robert Oliver. On one hand, he treats his current women badly. And yet, on the other, he has plunged himself into mental despair trying to avenge a wronged woman painter of the 1870s. Her name is Beatrice de Clerval Vignot, and Oliver knows the woman only by an evocative oil painting of her, which he saw at the Met in New York City.
The Swan Thieves is not a paranormal romance. And yet Beatrice exists in Robert Oliver’s life as if a palpable ghost. He paints her face constantly (freaking out his wife, Kate, of course). He wants to avenge Beatrice, but can’t go back in time. So he turns his rage inward. He becomes incommunicable. “She’s dead,” is all he can say.
In time, the novel presents two mysteries to be explained. First is how and why Oliver got obsessed with Beatrice. Second is: Who is this Beatrice, and what happened to her that needs to be avenged?
In the last chapters, psychiatrist Marlow finally goes to Paris to find the answers. One important clue is a note that Oliver had left in Paris when he pursued the life story of Beatrice. Oliver’s note says, “Perhaps you know what it is like not to be able to paint when you want to.”
This one line—paint when you want to—reveals what might be called the essential feminist theme of the entire novel: Women want to paint, but they meet obstacles, and the main one is male prejudice.
To be sure, the novel offers a note of sympathy for male painters, too. Psychiatrist Marlow is an amateur painter and his profession often gets in the way of his painting when he wants to. For women, it’s far worse. We meet Kate Oliver, a young artist who became Robert Oliver’s wife, now estranged. He left her with a baby and all the household chores, and she was forced to give up her artwork.
Oliver continues the pattern. As Kate and Robert separate, he is seduced by a young art student named Mary Bertison. They cohabitate, but she is eventually so oppressed by his behavior, she too can no longer be an artist. She kicks him out.
The moral conundrum for readers is this: Although Robert Oliver treats his present-day lovers badly, he is quite the opposite with the ghostly Beatrice. He is overwhelmed by compassion when he learns that she couldn’t paint when she wanted to.
As Oliver says in a note, “She stopped painting too young. I must continue for her. Someone must avenge her, since she might have continued to paint for decades if she had not been cruelly prevented.” Oliver believes Beatrice was a “genius.”
With clinic-bound Oliver mute throughout the story, it's up to Marlow to take us to Paris to unlock Beatrice’s past. Back in the 1870s, she had been a young, married, and rising painter in the age of Courbet (a kind of early Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt figure). Her talent was encouraged by an older man, a widower—known in her letters as Cher Monsier—who is a good friend of the family and an art connoisseur.
Cher Monsier falls in love with Beatrice. In this atmosphere he inspires her to do a very challenging painting. It’s on the classical Greek mythical theme of Leda, the story of a mortal woman whom Zeus visited as a swan to impregnate and give the world a few more mythical heroes. (This is the painting that Oliver will attack at the National Gallery and that underwrites the novel’s title, The Swan Thieves).
The love affair between Cher Monsier and Beatrice is kept vague in the narrative. We don’t know whether they slept together (making her an adulteress) or just shared a Platonic kiss. Either way, one of Cher Monsier’s letters to Beatrice—“about us, about our night,” she says—was intercepted by Gilbert Thomas, a wicked art-dealer-painter who’d had his eyes on Beatrice’s career.
A capable painter himself, Thomas had done the portrait of Beatrice (which Robert Oliver saw in the Met). Once Thomas has purloined her illicit love letter, he decides to blackmail her. If she did not let him put his name on the swan painting, thus boosting his career, he would take the love letter public. Beatrice relents, but says in a final letter, “I will never paint for this monster after I finish, or if I do it will be only once, to record his infamy.” She never paints again.
As the investigator in the novel, Marlow realizes that Oliver had discovered all of this history and returned to D.C. as avenger. His attack on the swan painting was an irrational act of desperation. Rationally, the reader might think, Oliver could have declared the truth with documentary evidence. He might have rehabilitated Beatrice as the painter of a great masterwork.
An overall motif haunts this novel: Men can be pretty malicious when it comes to stopping women from painting. Mr. Oliver does it in his way, and the evil dealer Mr. Thomas did it in his. Presuming this novel is written mostly for a female audience, it presents a very complex image of men in regard to women artists. What would that image be? You can’t live with them, but you can’t live without them?
The happy ending is really about psychiatrist Marlow. He helps Robert Oliver get over his obsession. After that, Marlow will probably propose marriage to Mary (who was jilted by Oliver). Indeed, Marlow and Mary have already begun to paint together in the Virginia countryside.
The Swan Thieves is a rich, detailed, and layered novel that seems to be rewarding to most readers who stay with the long-and-winding road until the end. The Janus-faced Robert Oliver is a good painter, but a very peculiar romantic, both a lout and a chivalrous defender of a wronged woman he never met. In an ideal world, we can suppose that he also would have let the other women in his life paint when they wanted to.