By Bruce Jacobs

emmapealThe American Painter Emma Dial
By Samantha Peale
W. W. Norton & Company ($24.95, 330 pp.)

In a voice of youthful bravado, James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus once vowed “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Emma Dial, the young artist’s assistant in Samantha Peale’s first novel “The American Painter Emma Dial” has the same determination: to break from a life of directed painting for her celebrity boss “to commit to my paintings, be possessive of them, particularize my subject rather than merely render it.”  The creative life – whether in words or paint, whether today or a hundred years ago, whether lauded or not – is not an easy path.

Peale is not afraid to write of the perhaps overworked terrain of New York’s art world with its Chelsea gallerinas and gallerists, trendy openings, big bucks and big egos in hopes of making this turf new and meaningful.   Doing so, she can’t help but include the “hordes of young art professionals with advanced degrees in curatorial studies and arts administration.” Like Emma, many were “twenty-five and wanted to fuck someone who was written about in art history books, who had met presidents, who had known Warhol.”

Walk Away from Comfort

To redirect her life to art, Emma must overcome the comfort she enjoys from her apprenticeship to a celebrity boss.  As art giant Michael Freiburg’s assistant, she manages all the tools of the trade – the oil paints, the brushes, the canvases, even the log of daily work and sales – and gets a nice cut of the million dollar price tags of each work.  But she also longs for the days when “we didn’t even have chairs in our apartment.  We ate our meals on the floor…and then would sit around drawing.  We had nothing to lose.  No one cared what we did.  It was the best way to work.”

The drama of “The American Painter Emma Dial” lies in the tug between the exciting but peripheral life that is Emma’s as a reward for her competence and the uncertain but creative life that might be hers as a result of her own talent.  As Michael advises her:  “You have to keep up the hard, lonely work for five years after you leave school, and if you can stick with the art, while your friends are buying houses and all that, getting married, having kids and second mortgages and careers with a title, associate manager of conference calls, then you might be a lifer.”

Peale fleshes out this drama with clearly drawn characters who significantly and tangentially cross Emma’s path from her best friend art school roommate (who flits off to Mexico to make movies) to collectors whose money buys them studio visits as well as first choice of new work and Michael’s biggest rival who entices her to his bed and studio in Miami.  There are few characters in the novel who are not involved in the art world, but Peale draws her art world denizens as real people just as confused and challenged as the rest of us.

A Tapestry of Details

Like a lasting painting, “The American Painter Emma Dial” has a strong undercoating in the details of the trade.  We learn the nuances of paintbrushes, perspective, and pigment mixing.  We see the strategy of gallery show timing, pricing, and pre-sales to key collectors.  We experience the impact of a talented teacher on the growth of a talented student.

When Emma finally gathers the courage to speak up in the company of all her dazzling colleagues, she rises to a crescendo not unlike that when Joyce’s Stephen at last articulates his dreams. “The more you make paintings, the more you can understand what is humanly possible if you make an effort,” she tells them. “Painting is a way to increase experience.  It can inspire thought, and thought can develop into considered ideas.”

The same can be said of Samantha Peale’s first novel.

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