Sarah Hall’s fourth novel, How to Paint a Dead Man, has received mostly positive reviews. The novel is critically acclaimed for its portrayal of its characters’ psyches and its connection to art. Further, Hall’s writing has been praised for her daring style and layout. Hall has also been applauded for her emotional intensity, sensuality, and intelligence. Much commentary mentions the novel’s subtle interlacing of character and theme. Additional commendation centers on a thematic association with contemporary concerns in the British art world, as well as with social and cultural changes. Negative criticism of the novel centers on its lack of plot and heavy-handed characterization, with one reviewer making the claim that the minor characters stand out the strongest.
Hall builds the novel around two historical references: a quote from French philosopher Gaston Bachelard and an excerpt from Italian artist Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s book Il libro dell’arte (wr. 1437, pb. 1821 as Trattato della pittura; A Treatise on Painting, 1844; better known as The Craftsman’s Handbook, 1933). Bachelard’s words “Things are not what they are, they are what they become” begin the novel, and the passage from Cennini’s text provides closure. The philosophical theme that opens the novel suggests that people’s lives are affected by potentials. Things are constantly changing; nothing remains static.
In contrast, Cennini’s brief exposition, from which the novel takes its title, provides detailed instructions on the process needed to paint a dead person. While Bachelard’s expression indirectly shows how the characters are in continual flux, Cennini becomes directly intertwined in the story when Italian painter Signor Giorgio comments on his methods and the way Giorgio’s own work reflects Cennini’s other teachings. In addition, Peter Caldicutt references Cennini in one of the letters he writes to Signor Giorgio. The title’s connection to Cennini’s instruction holds a variety of possible meanings related to the stories in the novel, as each character is connected to art and to death.
All four of the main characters are artists. Signor Giorgio is famous for his paintings of bottles, Peter is famous for his landscapes, his daughter Susan is known for her photography, and Annette Tambroni is a budding child artist under Giorgio’s tutorage until she loses her eyesight. Each character’s artistic perception and vision is tested as they all undergo life-changing events and connect with one another at different points in their lives.
Giorgio is at the end of his life in the early 1960’s, and as his narrative progresses readers see how he has painted his own death. He has isolated himself at his home in Serra Partucci. His only connections are with Theresa, the woman who keeps his house; Antonio, his agent; a few students at the local school (including Annette Tambroni); and Peter, who writes to Giorgio in admiration of the older artist’s works. Giorgio’s journal entries provide a portrayal of the artist as a dying man, and his journals seem to be priceless artworks in comparison to his bottles or his seldom-painted self-portraits. The changes in Giorgio’s life are indicated through the glimpses his journals provide into his childhood, his marriage, and his writing career. The journals ramble through these reminiscences in no particular order, but they are able to share the development of the subject matter that drives his life, the reasons for his subjects’ evolution, his perception of his life, and his anticipation of death.
Peter’s chapters focus less directly on death. He is also less dynamic than Signor Giorgio, so views of his life allow readers a moment of retrospect. As his section commences, Peter is in the middle of his life....
(The entire section is 1573 words.)