In 1797 a young female painter called Ann Jemima Provis claimed she possessed a secret manuscript that revealed the long-lost secrets of the Venetian painters. How did Titian and his peers achieve their mastery of colour? Provis demonstrated her technique — supposedly based on the lost manuscript — to Benjamin West, the president of the Royal Academy ... As cultural history this is utterly absorbing, but as a novel The Optickal Illusion suffers from Halliburton’s tendency to fill her characters’ dialogue with heavy-handed exposition. That aside, this is an assured and enjoyable debut that asks some uncomfortable questions about women’s erasure from the history of art.
Based on a real-life scandal in 1797, this novel is concerned with Ann-Jemima Provis and her father ... The plot is slow-moving, very much of its time and place, and the research is impeccable. The reader becomes totally immersed in the society and culture of the time: clothes, speech, idioms, descriptions of place all serve to help the reader imagine the scenes.
Pennsylvania-born 18th century painter Benjamin West is the somewhat unlikely narrative focus of Rachel Halliburton's eloquent and captivating debut historical novel The Optickal Illusion, West was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and like Franklin largely a self-taught genius, and in 1760 he traveled to Italy in order to refine his artistic technique by studying masters such as Titian. By the time West traveled on to England in 1763, his talents had broadened, and he was intent on making valuable connections before returning to America and establishing a practice there as a working artist.
Halliburton’s intriguing but patchy debut, based on an episode from the London art world in the 1790s, concerns the mysterious provenance of a Renaissance manuscript and of the young lady peddling it ... The novel teems with historical characters, and occasionally the narrative meanders as a result. There is a tendency to have characters rather stiffly convey political and cultural information, as if they were docents rather than living, breathing figures. Nonetheless, the novel’s expansive, colorful canvas contains many delights, particularly for those interested in art history and theory