The Optickal Illusion
by Rachel Halliburton
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.
He never did return to America. Instead, he rapidly gained fame and commissions in London, eventually securing royal patronage. What followed was a sterling but nonetheless fairly standard high-profile painter's life of the period, full of work and socializing, prestigious jobs and standing at the Royal Academy. He was President of the Academy when he was tangled in a scandal that afflicted the Georgian art world: a man named Thomas Provis and his daughter Ann Jemima contacted West with the offer of a lifetime: a long-lost manuscript revealing the secrets of the Venetian masters – secrets that would allow West and his fellow artists to duplicate the vibrant colors of painters like Titian.
Even many critics at the time scorned the idea as an obvious hoax, and that hoax is the heart of Halliburton's novel, deepened and complicated by some very sure-footed dramatics. “We are living in times where reality swings back and forth like a hanged man from a gibbet,” one character ruefully laments, and Halliburton exploits that sense of the time's miasma to great effect, often in striking prose, as when West first encounters London:
The sky is grey and hurls down raindrops like mockery. West is not sure yet what attracts people to this city. The Thames and its ferment of corpses and excrement seems no substitute for either the pure blue Pennsylvanian lakes or the warm Mediterranean. He has little conception that he will spend the rest of his life here.
“In Venice, colour was almost seen as a currency, it was so valuable,” we're told, and it's this feeling of heightened stakes that takes the story of a minor art world scandal and elaborates it into an absorbing story of doubt and validation. Halliburton, a long-time journalist, manages to avoid most of mistakes of first-time historical novelists; in particular, the book's necessary blocks of exposition are mercifully short and well-handled.
Benjamin West himself remains oddly, persistently opaque throughout, but the Provis pair, father and daughter, are thoroughly memorable creations, and the Georgian art world portrayed here is as vivid as anything readers may have encountered in, for instance, Robert Alberts' West biography from 40 years ago. The Optickal Illusion is involving reading, an impressive fictional debut.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website ishttp://www.stevedonoghue.com