The Underpainter

by Jane Urquhart

Hardcover, 1997

Call number




Viking Adult (1997), Edition: 1st American ed, 256 pages


The Underpainter is a novel of interwoven lives in which the world of art collides with the realm of human emotion. It is the story of Austin Fraser, an American painter now in his later years, who is haunted by memories of those whose lives most deeply touched his own, including a young Canadian soldier and china painter and the beautiful model who becomes Austin's mistress. Spanning decades, the setting moves from upstate New York to the northern shores of two Great Lakes; from France in World War One to New York City in the '20s and '30s. Brilliantly depicting landscape and the geography of the imagination, The Underpainter is Jane Urquhart's most accomplished novel to date.

Media reviews

Die Kanadierin Jane Urquhart hat mit ihrem Roman "Übermalungen" großen Erfolg gehabt. Das sinnlich und metaphernreich formulierte Buch erhielt den renommiertesten Literaturpreis Kanadas, den Governor's General Award. Dies liegt sicherlich auch an dem kühlen, ruhigen Erzählton, der jeglichen
Show More
Kitsch vermeidet. Liebe, Freundschaft, Verlust und Schuld sind die zentralen Themen des Romans.
Show Less

User reviews

LibraryThing member Nickelini
The narrator, Austin Fraser, is a successful painter from New York who is in his old age, reflecting back on his life. He is emotionally stunted and has suppressed commitment and genuine friendship his whole life. I've known selfish artist types like him, and so I had no sympathy for the character.
Show More
However, the people who's lives he messed with--namely Augusta, George & Sara--were very interesting and likable, and their stories made up most of the book. Their stories traverse from New York to the north shores of Lake Superior and Lake Ontario, and over to the WWI battlefields of France.

A LT friend with similar tastes as mine gave up on this book in the first 100 pages, and I can see her point. It got off to a slow start. But Urquhart is a beautiful writer, and I saw glimmers of promise so I persevered, and was rewarded for my patience. Urquhart is one of those poetic, atmospheric writers that are a treat for the senses.

Recommended for: readers of literary fiction who are in the mood for a somewhat chilly, distracted, meandering journey.

And a note: I've made this comment about other novels with a strong visual element (mostly books about painters, but also novels about archaeology and architecture): give the reader some illustrations! I can make a picture in my mind of what Fraser was painting, but I really would like to see what the author had in mind. Publishers could learn so much by looking at illustrated novels like the ones by Nick Bantock and Barbara Hodgson.
Show Less
LibraryThing member LynnB
This is the second novel by Jane Urquhart that I've read and I am, again, amazed by the beauty of her writing.

The Underpainter is the story of artist Austin Fraser who knows and understands colour and landscapes far better than he knows or tries to understand the people he is closest to.
LibraryThing member oldblack
I don't know much about art, but I know that I like this work which is set firmly in the world of painting.It probably would enhance your appreciation of the book to be more aware of the art scene and technical issues in art, but there is plenty here to satisfy the art-ignorant reader such as me.
Show More
Urquhart writes in a way that I enjoy a lot. Relationships between characters are explored at depth through both the description of the interactions and (more importantly for me) the characters own thoughts about their behaviour and their feelings towards each other.

I think I identified quite strongly with the main character. Urquhart says this about him, towards the end of the book:

"And how did I appear to Sara? Who did she see when she looked at me?
A man in love with the stifling order he had imposed upon his own life." (p. 220)

Urquhart's descriptions of the environment and the characters' responses to their surroundings was another particularly rewarding aspect of reading this book. I'm looking forward to reading more of her work.
Show Less
LibraryThing member ParadisePorch
This 1997 winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award is the third novel I’ve read by this talented writer.

It’s told from the point of view of painter Austin Fraser, living in his old age in his childhood hometown of Rochester NY. The setting moves from upstate New York to the
Show More
northern shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Superior – both Canadian locations. It’s told in flashbacks from Austin’s present (1970s) to 1914 and the ensuing years. I was struck by the different affects that the declaration of war in 1914 had on Canada, and on the United States.

The title refers to the method which Austin now uses for all his paintings: blank white over an “underpainting”. Why he paints like this is revealed as the story is.

Urquhart weaves her story skillfully, building to a heart-rending climax.

Read this if: you appreciate beautiful prose and understated stories; or you’re interested in the contrast between the effects of WWI on Canada and its closest neighbour the United States.
4 stars
Show Less
LibraryThing member Bookish59
Sensitive, moving, and beautiful. Urquhart's spare language makes simple events more powerful. Her words paint scenes which appear clear and unblemished but come to be deeply complex. Her characters are strong but vulnerable.

Deciding to write about Austin Fraser, and how she manipulates the timing
Show More
of words, dialogue and events to make us understand his life, his relationships, and his effect on others is brilliant.

The Underpainter slowly reveals the different layers of Austin's life; undoing his efforts at hiding and erasure.

Do read!
Show Less
LibraryThing member LauGal
artfully written. lovely writing,haunting.
LibraryThing member PDCRead
This is set around the time of the first world war and is about a painter and artist and his interaction with a few friends in North America and Canada.

After he looses his mother, his father makes some investments in silver and makes a fortune, enabling Austin to become and artist and be
Show More
independent. A friend who he went with to dances, and had an infatuation with a girl, is sent off to war in the trenches.

Austin becomes a painter, and develops a relationship with a lady who is older than him, both as a lover and as a model for him. He paints and draws her nude over fifteen summers, and learns that her, father who was a miner had effectively worked for his father as an investor. George return from the war with shell shock and brings a nurse who cared for his as a partner. His relationship with Austin, which was always strained, never really improves.

It is a book that is about the selfishness of relationships and the tragedy of war and loss. It doesn't have a hugely strong plot, and the main character is someone who is not someone that you would ever warm to.

However, the book is beautifully written, almost effortless at times, and is compelling in its descriptions.
Show Less


Women's Prize for Fiction (Longlist — 1998)
Dublin Literary Award (Longlist — 1999)




0670877263 / 9780670877263
Page: 0.2357 seconds