The Great Man opens as Henry Burke, a biographer, conducts an interview with the elderly Claire St. Cloud, who was the long-time mistress of the famous painter Oscar Feldman. Oscar is the subject of Henry’s biography. Throughout the course of the novel, Henry interviews Claire—known by the nickname Teddy—as well as Claire’s twin daughters; Oscar’s wife, Abigail; Oscar’s sister, Maxine; and Claire’s best friend, Lila. Each of these women loved Oscar in her own unique way, and they reveal their thoughts about their lives with him as they are interviewed. Ralph Washington is a rival biographer; both of them go back and forth between the women in Oscar’s life, trying to piece together Oscar’s story: what motivated his paintings (all female nudes), the background to his fiercely independent and often antisocial personality, and how he managed to live two separate lives: one with his wife and one with his mistress.
Oscar and his sister, Maxine, were the only children to a Jewish couple, and both children had artistic talent. Oscar channeled his love for women into his art. He exclusively painted female nudes, and he often had affairs with his subjects, which both his mistress and his wife took in stride. Maxine, however, made a name for herself in painting abstracts; her paintings reflected the emotions, thoughts, and philosophies of her life at the time in which she painted them.
Both painters were successful; however, because of Oscar’s subject matter and the fact that he refused to conform to accepted norms of art in the field at the time, Oscar received much more press and notoriety. One day in a fit of frustration over Oscar’s criticism of abstract art, Maxine challenges him to a bet. She bets him that she can paint a female nude that is just as good as his but that he cannot paint an abstract piece as good as hers. The winner gets a thousand dollars and the chance to showcase their piece in the next show. Oscar accepts the challenge. Maxine uses a recent painting of Oscar’s called Mercy, of Abigail’s housekeeper, as a template for creating her own female nude. She chooses her lover at the time, an art historian named Jane Fleming, as her subject for the painting. Maxine is able to create a successful painting, one that contrasts and highlight’s Oscar’s Mercy perfectly. Maxine tells no one of what she has done. The paintings...
(The entire section is 969 words.)