‘Portrait of an Unknown Lady’ by Maria Gainza – An Argentine Novel about Art Fraud


‘Portrait of an Unknown Lady’ by Maria Gainza    (2018) – 177 pages                       Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstad


This is a neat eloquent little Argentine novel about art fraud.

The best way for an aspiring artist to learn to paint like Renoir is to practice copying a painting by Renoir. However if someone did a superb job copying a Renoir, they might even be able to pass it off as the real thing. This is called forgery. Even better, an artist could paint a picture that looks like a Renoir but with a somewhat different subject matter. Perhaps they could pass that off as a Renoir. Renoir would be difficult even for an expert forger, but there are new names in the art world for whom it would be easier to forge their work.

Our female first person narrator works for Enriqueta Macedo who is Argentina’s preeminent expert in art authentication, a true great of the art world. Enriqueta Macedo is our narrator’s hero.

She was no longer young, but there was still the impunity of beautiful people in the way she walked. . . She didn’t need to be liked by anyone; that was her strength.”

Later our narrator finds out that Enriqueta Macedo, upright and beyond reproach, had been giving certificates of authenticity to forged works of art.

I very soon made it clear that I was at her disposal for whatever she should need; whether it be making coffee or carrying out an act of cold-blooded murder, she should do with me as she pleased. Enriqueta read me like a book.”

Later our narrator progresses on to even larger art frauds, one involving twenty-eight works by the artist known as Figari.

Throughout ‘Portrait of an Unknown Lady’, our author Maria Gainza has an over-the-top style of writing which is enjoyable to read.

I was big enough to know that the truth is always something that does not smile.”

As though truth were the be-all and end-all and not just another well-told story.”

Each of the various chapters of this novel has a different striking focus. But whatever this novel may lack in continuity it more than makes up for with its dramatic prose style.

Characters with precisely wrought histories, linear psychologies, and coherent ways of behaving are one of literature’s fallacies.”


Grade:    A-





5 responses to this post.

  1. I always enjoy these art fraud themes, but my favourite is the one by Michael Frayn, Headlong, which I think was a Booker nominee?

    Liked by 1 person


  2. Hi Tony! I’m slowly, slowly catching up on my blog reading & I’ve been saving this review, as I am a big fan of María Gainza. I read Optic Nerve, the first of her work translated into English, a few years ago and liked it so much I replaced my e-copy with a hardback! (no higher praise, huh?) It was a wonderful blend of facts about art & artists; fiction; autobiography and auto-fiction (although Gainza played down these two latter aspects). Needless to say, I snapped up Portrait of an Unknown Lady as soon as it was available.
    Although I liked Portrait a great deal (and agree with the points you make in your review), my assessment overall is a bit lower than yours; say a “B+” rather than an “A-“. I’m addicted to books about art and artists & I find Gainza’s perspective as an art lover and critic irresistible (I thought her description in Portrait of her job on a local paper as an art critic was hilarious). I also love her style, which is well served by her loose, non-linear and digression way of telling her story. I must admit, however, that all of her strengths were (IMO) better served in Optic Nerve; I found the latter more immediate and compelling because its protagonist was so much more a reflection of the author herself.
    As a sidenote, I totally agree with Lisa about Frayn’s Headlong! It was a fabulous read, especially if you’ve any interest in art (the plot centers around a missing painting by Pieter Bruegel).



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